When it comes to service learning, Bowen High School is cooking. Last fall, the South Chicago school was one of two Chicago public schools represented in the Mikva Challenge, a program that places teenagers as volunteers in political campaigns. Named for Abner Mikva, a former chief judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington D.C. and a former congressman from Chicago, the program is aimed at introducing teenagers to the political process. In addition, says Bowen social studies teacher Michael Myer, “This project forced my students to apply their English and strengthen their speaking skills.”

Currently, 11 Bowen students are mounting a campaign against loose-strife, a hardy, purple perennial that is taking over the wetlands of Lake Calumet. In Lillian West’s science classroom, the students are raising beetles to feast on the weed. In the spring, they’ll spend four Saturdays replacing loosestrife with plants that are better for the environment. They’re keeping journals on these activities and will make presentations in science class. They may even mount a photo exhibit.

Another group of Bowen students is helping 7th- and 8th-graders at nearby public and private schools develop their own community service projects. “The kids come up with an idea, like planting a garden, and we help them do it,” says Lakeesha Ellis, a sophomore. “We ask questions like, ‘How much money are you going to need to do this? What kind of skills do you have to have?’ Stuff like that.”

“Right now, we have a nice variety of activities and have been able to connect them to the classroom,” says JoAnn Podkul, a social studies teacher who does double duty as Bowen’s student learning coach. “But we are serving a small population.”

This year, only 50 of some 600 freshmen and sophomores are working on service learning projects. Podkul says that as the numbers increase, it will be hard to maintain a quality program because few teachers are integrating service projects into their classes. Currently, she counts nine out of a staff of 90; all are from the school’s science and social studies departments.

“The alternative, which I don’t want to do is say, ‘Here kids, we’ve rented a bus, and we’re going to take you to a vacant lot to work and then you’ll come back and write about it,” she says. “So far, our projects are rich.”

“Don’t get me wrong,” Podkul adds. “I am getting a lot of cooperation from teachers. I recently met with the heads of our eight small schools to talk about this, and they were receptive, but it is a fraction of what we need to get this going for all our students.”

Podkul says teachers already feel overwhelmed with new mandates. She believes they need training, too. “The board is working on a suggested a curriculum for teachers, but just because there’s a curriculum doesn’t mean teachers are going to do it,” she says. “Right now, service learning coaches are responsible for getting teachers involved, but teachers need more than help from just the service learning coach.”

Podkul adds that teachers should also be compensated for extra work.

“I had two science teachers who put in two full days of training outside the classroom to be able to work with students on the wetlands project,” she says. “This project also requires time on Saturdays, sometimes the whole day. It’s not like they don’t want to do it, but that’s asking a bit much of teachers.”

Podkul says the position of service learning coach needs to be full time, too. The coach is responsible for finding projects for students, supervising the programs they are in, keeping track of student hours and recruiting and working with faculty to integrate the projects into their teaching.

Bowen begins the program with a number of advantages. For one, Podkul and another teacher served on the School Board’s Service Learning Task Force, so they get the concept. The school also is surrounded by community organizations that have called with service learning suggestions.

But the lack of time has been a drag on good intentions.

“During the day, I’d get calls from agencies interested in working with our kids, but I had no phone,” says Podkul. “They’d leave messages for me at home, but when I got home, it would be too late to call them back. I didn’t have time to talk to people at the school—I was in class. I didn’t have time to visit sites and organizations. It was very difficult to do.”

By second semester, staff changes allowed Podkul to drop three of her classes and devote more time to service learning. Bowen also applied for and received a $3,000 Service and Learn grant, which comes from state money that is distributed by local districts. Podkul plans to use part of the grant to pay adults to supervise students in some of these projects.

Among community partners, the Southeast Development Commission (SDCOM), an urban planning group, has been the school’s most active, suggesting the loosestrife war, the partnership with elementary schools and conversion of a vacant lot at 90th and Buffalo into a park. “It’s still in the planning stages,” Podkul says of the park. “But maybe we can have students learn mapping and weave in some language skills here, too.”

CIMBY, short for Calumet IS my Backyard, provided materials on loose-strife, wetlands and environmental issues.

Chicago Do Something, the recently-opened local branch of a national student leadership organization, began to train the teachers involved in the wetlands project on how to work with students.

One Stop Art Gallery, at 89th and Commercial, expressed an interest in working on an art curriculum and a display of student work.

Mikva Challenge

Next year, the Mikva Challenge will afford opportunities for students to serve as interns in presidential campaigns. The students who participated last fall say the experience opened a new world to them.

“When I first heard I had to do service learning, I said, ‘Volunteering, me?’ I already play basketball, softball, and am part of a girls’ club at school called the Sisterhood,” recalls Shannon Guyton, a sophomore who worked in the campaign of Gov. George Ryan. “But my social studies teacher encouraged me to do it. So I did to get it out of the way.”

“I stuffed envelopes, made 250 calls a day, learned my way around City Hall. But I also got to meet the candidates and learn something about politics. Before this, I didn’t know a thing about politics. I didn’t even know who the governor was.”

Back at Bowen, Shannon helped run a mock election and served as a judge.

“Shannon didn’t want to do this at first,” laughs classmate Josie Quijano, who also worked as a political campaign intern. “But now she gets into political debates with me.”

For Josie, the Mikva Challenge ended with another internship offer. After Josie spoke at the concluding lunch, held at the Chicago Athletic Club, she says: “Some ladies came over to me and said, ‘You speak very well. If you want to do an internship with us, call us.'”

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