Coloring outside the lines equals success at GCE Lab School Nontraditional learning method spurs 100% college rate and off-the-charts enthusiasm

CHICAGO – As Chicago teens head back to school, a chorus of complaints can be heard in the hallways about the end of summer and a return to the study grind.

Not at GCE Lab School: Chicago Prep.

In fact, many of the students returning to GCE today have been so eager to get back to their classrooms that they spent the last few weeks of summer volunteering at the school, 1535 N. Dayton St., helping to build its new James Dyson Foundation Maker Lab, a research, design and engineering lab.

Set in a 30,000-square-foot former factory with both exclusive and shared space within the Menomonee Club Drucker Center, GCE – which stands for “Global Citizenship Experience” – is far from the traditional sedentary school. Named “The Most Innovative School Using Google” by Google Inc. in 2013 for its advanced use of the search engine’s services, GCE aims to “reinvent education and cultivate global citizens” said founder and Director Eric Davis.

Davis developed GCE’s City2Classroom educational model – an inquiry- and project-based STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics) and Humanities curriculum – that puts students in real-world environments to explore and hone their skills, embrace new technologies and thrive. The model lets kids engage, reflect and work collaboratively while connecting their classroom lessons to the real world.

In the City2Classroom model, students work in collaborative classrooms and also have weekly “field experiences” with guest workshops, case studies, and apprenticeship at some of the school’s more than 200 partner locations. Partners – which include CME Group, Goodman Theatre, Gravity Tank, Guggenheim Partners, Home Depot, 1871, Fifth-Third Bank and some of the city’s many cultural institutions – give students hands-on opportunities to examine the topics they learn about and test real-world applications. The kids explore careers, bolster classroom skills and knowledge, network and take ownership of their learning process while having fun and being challenged.

“During field experiences, the students gain prime networking skills and opportunities that 99% of traditional high-school students never see,” Davis said.

In its partnership with Goodman, for example, GCE developed a “Stage Chemistry” course which explored the science and math behind a theatrical production. Students had to adapt the theater’s “A Christmas Carol” to a new time and setting, and design and build a set to scale for their own production.

“The students loved it; it’s what learning should be — collaborative, respectful, challenging and inspired,” said Willa J. Taylor, Goodman’s director of education.

GCE has agreed to allow other schools to use the course, Taylor noted, and is also working with the theater to design a humanities course that explores social justice.

With a block schedule that focuses on just a few subjects during each nine-week quarter, GCE’s learn-by-doing approach is entrepreneurial, emphasizing engagement and self-directed learning over traditional curriculum and testing. Each student also benefits from individualized coaching from teachers, partners, families and peers.

Not all its students are found at the brick-and-mortar site on Dayton; some are online students, who participate in some activities in person and others from remote locations.

The school champions a diverse experience for students, integrating the four global citizenship principles of accountability, purpose, autonomy and gratitude to form the foundation of academic achievement. Extracurricular sports and clubs are offered according to student interest, and community volunteer work is encouraged.

While not focused on traditional desks-and-lecture learning, GCE doesn’t let students skate on standards. GCE’s approach gives grades and tests, but “real, detailed and guiding feedback is offered constantly so students have actionable next steps to progress and grow,” Davis said.

It’s paying off. Since it opened in 2009, all of GCE’s graduates have gone on to college at some 60 of the nation’s top schools; 80% of those students have snared merit aid.

While still small with about 50 students currently enrolled, GCE is already having a big impact on the local education scene. Since last spring, teachers at six other Chicago schools have been trained in the GCE model and will begin implementing the approach this fall. Davis said teachers at five more schools will undergo training this fall, and a third wave is scheduled for 2016.

It all circles back to Davis’ mission to reinvent education and spark enthusiasm for lifelong learning and, he hopes, a better world. “I want 100% of these kids to find their place in the world,” he said. “And make it better.”