Camelot Education’s Excel Academy of Southwest Creates Garden Mural to Inspire Community

 In Camelot Blog

Camelot Education’s Excel Academy of Southwest in Chicago recently completed an outdoor mural, part of a multi- phase project to invigorate the school’s garden. The mural was a collaboration between students and Sentrock Studio, a Chicago-based studio known for the image of Bird City Saint, a character that is meant to give hope to teens throughout the city. The mural depicts an African American child wearing a bird mask planting seeds with a powerful statement: “They thought they could bury us, but they didn’t know they were planting seeds.”

Jake Benke, the school’s principal, said the mural and the garden demonstrate the school’s hands-on approach to education.

“The mural is part of phase two of the community garden, which started last school year. Phase one consisted of the students designing the seed beds and deciding what was to be grown in them. The community also gave their input,” Benke said. “We wanted this to be an inviting area. We put in a tent so people would have a place to sit as well as some inspirational quotes. The math class designed the seed beds, the science class monitors how the plants are progressing, and the English class picks the inspirational quotes. In phase three, we hope to partner with a third-party organization interested in putting on a farmer’s market or a culinary experience for the community.”

Benke said Exc el Academy of Southwest is always looking for new activities for its students and for more ways to get the neighborhood residents involved. It’s a way to uplift the community. “We want our friends in the neighborhood to know we’re more than just a school. We’re a community resource.”

According to Benke, 30 students were involved in planning phase two of the garden. The garden is 75 feet long and ten feet wide. In addition to deciding how to lay the seed beds and planting, the students also designed an irrigation system for the garden. Sentrock is a Chicago-based street artist. His early works were developed from graffiti writing in Mexican-American neighborhood murals. According to Benke, one of Excel’s teachers who helped choose the quotes knew of Sentrock from a local café where artists perform spoken word.

“The entire project benefits the students, who used geometry to design and build the site. The quotes used spoke to the students,” Benke said.

Camelot Education’s Excel Academy of Southwest is an accelerated school in Chicago Public Schools Options network for students 15-21 years old who are behind in their studies. The school offers extended days and longer class periods to enable students to catch up to their grade-level peers and ultimately graduate. High school students who enroll with zero credits can earn their diploma in 2.5 years or less. Camelot Education’s Excel Academies are dedicated to creating a challenging, academically rigorous, and safe environment for all students.

“Our students are getting a second chance; they are young people who are often either overlooked or forgotten by the system,” Benke said. “When they come to us, we let them know their past isn’t going to influence their future. That’s why we have a wide range of programs and activities for our students- such as the robotics program or hydroponics program which uses fish waste to fertilize plants. We’re a hands-on school, and that inspires and motivates our kids. We want them to see what they can accomplish; that’s our purpose.”

A major component of the school’s hand-on approach to education, said Benke, comes during the interviewing process for prospective teachers. Benke said he asks about candidates’ passions outside the classroom and if those interests can be incorporated into their work. Many of the school’s students barely get to leave their neighborhoods, so it’s critically important for them to be exposed to culture, arts, and sciences beyond those confines.

“The areas in our city which need the most are often those that get the least attention,” Benke said. “We’re so grateful for our teachers and community. For them to continually be here for us is a sign of their dedication and commitment to our students’ education; when our kids graduate, they see how it pays off. As an example, we had a fire several months ago, so for right now, we’re at a temporary location. But that doesn’t deter us, or our students, or put a crimp in our education programs. The garden is at our regular site, and it demonstrates the commitment to growth and accomplishment despite a setback. As the mural quote reads; it doesn’t bury us, it’s a seed that gets planted.”

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