GCE Lab School students gain real-world insights


December, 2015                                  

It was a balmy September day when GCE Lab School students sat with the Invisible Institute’s Jaime Kalven and listened to him talk about Laquan McDonald and Kalven’s then-ongoing court battle to get the video of McDonald’s murder released by the City of Chicago. At the Institute’s Hyde Park facility, they listened in horrified silence as Kalven outlined the city’s alleged cover-up of the incident, its slick $5 million wrongful-death payment to McDonald’s family and the chilling details he expected to see on the video if and when he could get it released.

But their discussion with Kalven was no “Scared Straight” session: it was part of their journalism class. And it made them the only teens in the country with an in-depth,  broad-spectrum understanding of the issue that weeks later exploded in protests around the city, federal investigations and administrative turbulence at the Chicago Police Department and City Hall.

While the journalism class explored shattered worlds, the design and engineering class was at Home Depot, 1232 W. North Ave., investigating force and leverage by using sledgehammers to crush concrete blocks in their mission to create a better tool. Each student got a chance to break a stack of blocks, hammering home the classroom lessons in an equally tangible way.

Still another GCE class was at Goodman Theatre, applying their math and science skills to a stage and set design project.

These off-campus forays weren’t special occasions for GCE students: all were a typical day’s work as part of the school’s City2Classroom model.

Alone among its peers, GCE Lab School (the “GCE” stands for Global Citizenship Experience), located in Lincoln Park, partners with more than 200 Chicago-area businesses, agencies and cultural institutions to give pupils real-world, immersive experiences that augment and synthesize classroom work and provide practical and cutting-edge experiences to prepare them for a rapidly changing world.

The names that have linked with GCE to provide students with their once weekly “field experiences” form a pantheon of both power and essential Chicago: Guggenheim. De Paul. Goodman Theatre. Loyola. CME Group. University of Chicago. PriceWaterhouse Cooper. Gravity Tank.  The CHA.

“We do something no one else does – we take what the kids are learning in class and then immerse them inside an organization so they get a real-world look at what those businesses and institutions really do, how they work and the problems they solve,” said school founder and executive director Eric Davis.

The Field Experiences aren’t field trips; they’re working assignments that students must get to on their own, participate in and structure multi-media projects around. In some cases, they’re mini-internships that require an extended, multi-week commitment.

They’re “the essence of our City2Classroom model, and a key to breaking down the walls between school and world,” Davis said. “Field Experience invites students to explore the question: who is the best in the world and how may we learn with them?”

Through the Field Experience exposure to hundreds of industry professionals — corporate, non-profit and individual – the school guarantees its students get inspired, Davis said. “It answers the question about why we study subjects in a way that lends credibility to subjects, school, instructors, curriculum, and to the guidelines about behavior, expectations, and urban orienteering,” he said. “It invites parents to share their networks and City2Classroom partners to simultaneously give back while preparing for the future.”

Unlike many business ventures, forging the partnerships doesn’t take lengthy negotiation, Davis said. “We simply ask,” he said. “Nine out of 10 times, people say ‘yes.’ It’s a win-win: We contextualize the valuable work that people do in the world by asking if they’d like to share who they are, what they do, and why they do it. ”

GCE measures partnership success by student reflection, application of lessons learned, repeat participation and the partners’ increased involvement with the school, said Davis.

For Goodman, the success of its involvement with GCE has been so strong the theater is now offering the stage chemistry course it designed with GCE to the other schools it works with, said Willa Taylor, Goodman’s director of education.

“The class we developed with GCE is so dynamic, so groundbreaking, that it would be a shame not to share it with other students,” Taylor said. The course has been so successful that for 2016, Goodman and GCE are developing a second course to offer students, she noted.

The City2Classroom model is already spreading. Davis and his team have already trained faculty at six other Chicago schools in the model, and there are 15 more schools on deck to learn the system in 2016.

“There is definitely more than just the traditional, educational model that is effective, and our kids get out there daily and prove it,” Davis said.

For more information, contact Eric Davis at (312) 643-0991.