This past week has been one of the greatest experiences of my life in many ways. Our ASB team began the week in Chicago in typical tourist fashion. We spent Saturday afternoon and Sunday braving the cold and exploring the city, stopping to take many group pictures along the way. These two days provided the group with an opportunity to bond before we began our direct service – and bond we did! It was evident from the very beginning of the trip that there was no better group of people to share a week of meaningful service with. On Sunday night, I went to sleep unbelievably excited to start my week of service the next morning.

First thing Monday morning, the group headed to Northwestern Settlement, the settlement house that provided us with an abundance of great opportunities to serve. The morning was dedicated to a brief history of the settlement house, an overview of all of the services they provide to the community, and a quick tour. It was evident from the moment we entered the building that the people of Northwestern Settlement were some of the most generous and empathetic people I had ever met. Their philosophy that “everyone is a neighbor” really shined through. Their warm hearts were evident from the way they welcomed us and the way they treated each other. We spent the afternoon helping AmeriCorp’s Project YES! with a Martin Luther King Jr. Literacy Day. It was a wonderful opportunity to help show students of all ages and their parents that reading can be exciting!

On Tuesday, we got to see Rowe Elementary School, which educates students from kindergarten through sixth grade, for the first time. We spent the majority of our time at Rowe learning about their mission as a charter school. The Rowe Elementary teachers and staff quite obviously care deeply about the future of their students. Each child is called a “scholar,” the classrooms are all named after colleges and universities, and the different grade levels go by the year in which they will potentially graduate from a four-year college. While I do think that such a strong emphasis on college at such a young age puts a lot of pressure on the students, I also believe that it is important to engrain the idea of college in their heads. The majority of these students come from families where nobody has attended college. Without the encouragement of Rowe, a lot of these students would probably grow up believing that college is not a possibility for them. I think it is important that Rowe teachers not only tell students that they CAN get into and graduate from four-year college, but they also show students that they should have high goals for themselves that they can achieve if they work hard. Rowe Elementary also places an emphasis on social-emotional learning. I think that this is an important aspect of learning, especially for younger students, that many school systems have completely removed from the curriculum. Rowe starts off every day with an extensive greeting during which students engage in guided conversations with one another. Every day closes with a brief reflection on the day. Students also attend one enrichment class (such as drama, physical education, or yoga) every day. I think that it is very important that the teachers not only fills their students with factual knowledge, but also encourage their students to seek self-knowledge, develop passions, and explore meaningful ways of self-expression.

The next day, we went back to Rowe Elementary in the morning. I was placed in a third grade classroom. While I was in class, I got to observe a brief lesson on poetry. Then, the students got to write poetry on their own. I was instructed to walk around the classroom, answering any questions students might have and helping everyone include line breaks in their poems while the teacher helped a small group of students who needed extra help. The students were instructed to write about something from their “hearts;” they had previously drawn maps of their hearts, including everything that was important to them. It was amazing to see the different passions that each of the students had. Two stories that I heard stood out to me the most: one student shared with me that her dad had abused her and I was very grateful to learn that she no longer lived with him; another student was writing a poem about his father who had been shot and killed. The ease with which these students told me these things that I perceived as tragic blew my mind. Then I realized that this was, sadly, the reality of the world in which they lived. Things that I could never imagine happening in my lifetime happened to these kids every day. Suddenly, the passion that these students had for learning and the care and encouragement that the teachers gave to them became immensely more meaningful. Without this school, students would have no safe place to explore and develop who they are and who they want to become.

Later on Wednesday, we went back to Northwestern Settlement and helped out with the food pantry for a while. The generosity of the people who worked there completely blew me away. Not only did the food pantry workers give out food to those who came for it, but they also had genuine conversations with every individual about his or her life. If there was something that they needed help with, the food pantry workers helped them. If they couldn’t help, they found somebody else who could. They were always sure that every single person had everything they needed. After the food pantry, we headed back to Rowe Elementary for an after school program. Dean McKnight, Emily, and I were placed in a kindergarten classroom where we led games and kept the students company while they waited for their parents to pick them up.

On Thursday, we went to our team leader, Yanel’s, charter high school, Noble Street College Prep. In the morning, the students were taking practice ACTs, so Jeff and I helped the English teacher we were assigned to with things he needed done around the classroom. (I got to cut more strips of paper than I ever imagined.) After lunch, we got to help out during classes. At the end of every class, the teacher set aside 10 minutes for the students to ask us any questions they had about college. They were all anxious to learn about our college experiences. It was obvious that these students were all motivated to succeed. The environment of support that Noble provided for the students was shocking. The principal informed us that, as far as he knows, four different Chicago gangs are represented in the school. Based on how well-behaved the students were in the classroom and in the hallways, I never would have guessed that. The amount of support that the teachers gave to the students and the students gave to one another was astonishing. In one class I observed, the whole class would break out in “snaps” to celebrate an exceptional answer. It is so important that Noble provides such a safe and supportive environment to these students who would likely be stuck in a dangerous, failing public school if it weren’t for the dedication and hard work of the Noble teachers.

On our last day of service, Friday, we got to help out with the HeadStart Program, a federally-funded program that provides pre-K to families in need. I got to help out with two half-day classes. The one thing that I experienced that meant the most to me on Friday was the bond that I shared with one girl in particular. She speaks mostly and Spanish and I speak not a word of Spanish, and yet I could still tell that my presence meant a lot to her. She would always gesture that she wanted to sit next to me and play with me. It was amazing to me that even though we don’t speak the same language, she could see that I really cared about her and all of the other students. The students in HeadStart are very lucky to be there. The program provides 3, 4, and 5 year olds with social and educational opportunities that will help them excel in elementary school. Without HeadStart, they would likely not have the skills that they need in order to meet or exceed expectations in kindergarten. The dedication that the HeadStart teachers had to their students was also apparent. They taught most lessons bilingually, so that all students could understand. They also placed an emphasis on creativity through art and dance. I think that the teachers are doing phenomenal work to provided these students with the tools to succeed when they move on to kindergarten.

I was very blessed this week to explore two schools and a pre-K program that are doing great work in the field of education. I believe that every single student I interacted with will succeed thanks to the dedication of the teachers and the structure of the schools which they are lucky enough to attend.

Unfortunately, not all schools are as successful as the schools with which I had the opportunity of working. I strongly believe that the education system needs to be fixed. Schools such as Rowe Elementary and Noble Street College Prep and other successful charter (and even public) schools can provide great models for the education of the rest of the country. I believe that if we pour enough time and resources into educational reform, we will see more successful students doing great things to better the world. If we fix the education system from the very youngest, providing even pre-schoolers with opportunities such as HeadStart, eventually, all of our problems will be solved. These students are the future. And if we provide all students with similar opportunities to those I observed this week, then the future will be brighter than it has ever been.

After this week, I intend to keep learning about what makes schools successful and what makes schools unsuccessful, and I will advocate for education reform.