Summer students discover My Chicago

  • By Paul D. Bowker
  • Education reporter
  • August 05, 2008 @ 7:25 AM

One student was "terrified" by Chicago's transit system.

Another would not eat the frog legs at an Uptown restaurant.

Those were just a couple of observations from the inaugural My Chicago summer study for students from 15 city high schools. The four-week program ended Sunday, when students unveiled a final presentation on  three Chicago communities: Hyde Park, Morgan Park and Pilsen.

My Chicago is a part of Summer Quest, a series of summer programs which has been operated by the Chicago Public Schools' Office of Postsecondary Education and Student Development since 2004.

Rhonda Bell, Summer Quest director, says My Chicago was developed as a pilot program to get students out of their own community and around the entire city to develop a sense of "identity and power." The program stressed not only a diversity of communities around the city, but diversity in the 20 freshmen selected.

"Not one of the students had been to Uptown," she says.

And that was an experience in itself. A Vietnamese restaurant in the Uptown area had been selected for lunch featuring menus that certainly didn't include a Big Mac and fries.

"They gave us frog legs," says Ezra Lampson, a rising sophomore at Northside Prep. "One kid at our table refused to eat it: 'I'm not tasting frog legs.'

"It was pretty good."

The students, who were picked among an applicant pool of 30 citywide, visited community gardens, parks, libraries and many businesses. They met business owners, police officers, neighbors. They learned to get from destination to destination using city trains.

Brandi Richards, My Chicago coordinator, says they talked about green spaces and visited them.

"It's a really good opportunity to see what the kids are thinking about what they're learning," Bell says.

"Now I know how to get around more -- public transportation," says Lavangela Johnson, a West Side student attending Foreman High School.

Riding the train was of particular concern to one student.

"The first few days, she was terrified of taking the train," Lampson says. "Now she takes the train home from the program every day."

Johnson was enamored by meeting two book authors, including fiction writer Sally Chapman.

"I had never met authors of a book in my whole life," she says.

In the first two weeks of the program, the students visited spots around the city as one group. In the third and fourth weeks, they were split into three groups and did more extensive research into the three communities their projects focused on.

Thursday, they were completing their projects in a computer lab at the Loyola University law school. Friday, they headed to a weekend retreat at Loyola's Lake Shore campus.

In addition to learning about the city, the program's leaders say, the students seemed to be learning about themselves as well.

"I'm seeing some social skills develop. Self reliance," Bell says. "The answer to every problem isn't, 'Call my mommy.' "

And the students had to find a way to talk to, or persuade, each other.

"How do I need to present myself? How can I be taken seriously? I think they're learning how to disagree," Richards says.

Paul Bowker, a Chicago-area journalist with 25 years of experience, covers Chicago Public Schools for the Daily News.