Members of Polaris Charter Academy's Peace Project film Ald. Walter Burnett (27th) during an anti-violence Public Service Announcement (PSA). | Photo courtesy Polaris Charter Academy.

Last month, Polaris Charter Academy, a West Humboldt Park elementary charter school, gained the kind of exposure most schools could only dream about. It was one of several schools — and the only Chicago school — featured in a nationwide Think It Up telecast broadcast on all four major television networks on Sept 11.

The telecast spotlighted the Polaris Peacekeepers Project – a student project that aims to take on the issue of gun violence. It also collaborated with another Polaris student project, the Voices of Change, which dealt with overcoming racial stereotypes. Michelle Navarre, the principal of Polaris Academy, said that she hoped the students’ work will help inspire kids all over the country and encourage them to create similar projects of their own.

Navarre said the school may focus on national issues, but it is rooted in the neighborhood surrounding the campus at 620 N. Sawyer Ave.

“Polaris has always been committed to being a neighborhood school,” said Navarre. “More than 80 percent of our students live within the surrounding area. Many of the families who do not live in the area started in the neighborhood and moved, but have kept their students with us.”

Navarre told Austin Weekly News that hers is the only school in Chicago that follows the eexpeditionary learning model — a system of learning based on an educational idea pioneered by German educator Kurt Hahn. Under this model, the students learn through half-year-long projects known as “expeditions.”

“[They] are in-depth investigations into topics of study,” explained Navarre. “Expeditions incorporate the use of primary source documents, extensive fieldwork and work with experts to create a real world, high quality final product that has purpose beyond the walls of the school. Often expeditions have a strong social justice components to them.”

One of those expeditionary projects helped catapult Polaris Academy into the national spotlight. The 7th Grade Polaris Peacekeepers Project started out as an in-depth look at the US Constitution and American gun laws.

According to a school press release, more than 95 percent of its students were affected by gun violence, so it was only natural that the project set out to tackle this issue. The students authored a book called The Peacekeepers of Chicago, created public service announcements about gun violence and hosted a Day of Peace. The project earned recognition from the national Expeditionary Learning organization, which invited four of the students involved in the project to give a speech at its annual national conference.

Inspired by the feedback from the Peacekeepers Project, Polaris students launched the Voices of Change project. They produced a series of podcasts — interviewing police officers, protesters, clergymen, politicians, and community activists to get their takes on the issue racial stereotypes and how those stereotypes might be overcome.

Think It Up telecast, the program that featured Polaris, was organized by the Entertainment Industry Foundation (EIF), a non-profit organization dedicated to encouraging Americans to care about education and to do more to improve it. The telecast aired on Sept 11, between 7:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m., on CBS, NBC, ABC and FOX network affiliates throughout the nation.

According to Navarre, EIF considered a number of schools for the telecast. Expeditionary Learning  and  America Achieves organizations nominated Polaris Academy, but the school still had to go through what she described as a rigorous selection process to earn its spot.

Students at Polaris said appearing on TV was a great experience for them.

“Any time students are recognized for their work by the broader community, it reinforces their beliefs that the work they are doing matters,” said Navarre. “[The students] are proud of having their work highlighted on television. They are happy that people got to see a glimpse of their hard work and are hoping it will compel people to learn more about Polaris. They feel special.”

Ultimately, Navarre said she hopes that national exposure would attract more students to expeditionary learning, in general. She also said that she hopes that other students from Chicago and elsewhere will be inspired by Polaris students’ work.

“It is also our hope that our students’ work can serve as a model to inspire students all over the country to create compelling projects to positively impact their communities,” she said. 

Igor Studenkov

Igor Studenkov is a winner of multiple Illinois Press Association awards for local government and business reporting. He has been contributing to Austin Weekly News since 2015. His work has also appeared...