Barely 5 feet tall, BEST lead teacher Joann Podkul is dwarfed by many of the freshmen enrolled in the small school. It doesn’t faze her. After 38 years of teaching, she has learned to give respect to get it back from teenage students.
“Ladies and gentlemen, time for class,” she repeats in a measured tone as she cuts a path through a hallway of chattering, meandering teens. One group of boys fails to move at her polite command. When the bell rings, they’re still hanging around.
“OK, gentlemen, 6:40 tomorrow a.m.,” she says calmly. Translation: They’ll be serving detention for tardiness. (“I quit. I want my GED,” one complains, then moves on, as do the rest.)
Like its lead teacher, Bowen Environmental Studies Team, or BEST, is tiny, but it’s making a big impression. Though its all-freshmen enrollment stands just under 70, the school is overcoming several challenges that stymie larger high schools: connecting service learning to classroom instruction, serving students across ability levels, getting parents involved and turning around tough kids.
“BEST is a prime example of how a theme school can do both—provide a quality school and a nurturing environment,” says Neil Bosanko, a longtime member of Bowen’s LSC, who also sits on the BEST advisory board.
The school’s mission is to connect core subjects to the real world through service learning projects that focus on the environment and civics. Projects this year range from growing beetles to control an invasive plant to creating a youth issues platform for the recent municipal elections. While many students at large high schools struggle to meet the 40-hour service-learning requirement for graduation, two freshmen at BEST have already earned the full quota.
“Practically every teacher is involved in relating their classroom [lessons] to our focus on the environment,” Podkul says. It’s easier to find and maintain curricular focus with a tight-knit faculty of nine, she explains. But individual teachers get credit for finding creative ways to link service learning to their subjects. Math teacher Myra Fletcher had her students adopt nearby Bessemer Park to do a needs assessment and figure out how best to improve it to serve the neighborhood.
Service learning projects also give students an opportunity to develop their leadership skills. Freshman Brandon Jones credits his work with the Mikva Challenge, a civic group for teens, for teaching him how to work with people from diverse backgrounds, navigate public transit and speak up in public. “It gives me a chance to speak with people about issues and it gives me a chance to get my voice heard,” he says.
Students were expected to get their feet wet doing projects this year, then take on leadership roles next year, Podkul says. But they are moving faster than she anticipated. One student sits on the BEST advisory council, and others may soon join the board of directors for the South Chicago Chamber of Commerce. (Bosanko is the chamber’s executive director.) “They’re not waiting for us,” Podkul says.
For example, BEST students were in charge of registering participants for a Saturday workshop at the Hammond Recycling Center. “They were very professional about it, and they were 9th-graders.”
Like Bowen, about one-quarter of BEST’s students have identified special needs. BEST’s two special education teachers are developing service learning projects for the few of their students who are in a separate classroom for academics. Most are successfully included in regular academic classes.
“They didn’t make this a magnet for the best kids,” notes Martin McGreal of the Chicago Teachers Union Quest Center, BEST’s external partner.
Freshman Glenn Maxwell says BEST gave him a fresh start. “Back in grammar school I had a bad reputation,” he says. “Now my grades are As, Bs and Cs.”
Glenn’s mother, Pamela Maxwell, also appreciates the work BEST has done with her son. “I was worried about him going to Bowen,” she says. “The teachers work real close with the students at BEST. Now he gets more attention.
“I didn’t expect him to do as well as he’s doing,” she adds. “He’s on the honor roll.”
BEST is finding ways to bring families into the school. On report card pickup day, all the teachers set up shop in two classrooms, making it easier for parents to find them. “We don’t have to go far to see all of his teachers,” says Maxwell.
Though the School Board doesn’t require report card pickup days at the end of second quarter, BEST held one anyway and drew 81 percent of its parents. “A stream of parents came in,” McGreal says. “[Podkul] gave every one of them a hug. She asked them about their work. It’s because of the small environment—they know Joann and she knows them.”