Explorer’s Program Provides Learning Opportunities, Virtual Field Trips for Camelot Education’s Excel Academy of South Shore Students
Seventeen miles north of Camelot Education’s Excel Academy of South Shore at Demera restaurant in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood, a dozen students warily study the platters of food set at their table.
After a few cautious bites of Ethiopian staples like injera, goman and zilzil tibs, their apprehension fades and curiosity fills its place.
“To see their faces when they are trying it, to seem nervous and anxious before they taste it,” described My Block My Hood My City (MBMHMC) program manager Nathaniel Viet-VanLear, “you can see exactly how they feel when they dig their hands into it.”
The field trip, which was one of eight planned throughout the school year and occurred prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, is an example of the opportunities offered through the MBMHMC Explorer’s Program, which is focused on exposing Chicago youth to more opportunities around the city through vocational and educational field trips.
“A lot of things I wasn’t introduced to until I was in the program, like different cultures,” explained 18-year-old senior Loryn Eoateng.
Tirrell Taylor, director of student services at Excel Academy of South Shore, said the Explorer’s Program helps students from Chicago’s South Side take part in the same activities as kids in more affluent communities in the city and suburbs.
“A lot of students in our neighborhoods don’t know what the downtown looks like,” Taylor said. “Their world frame is confined to the few blocks inside their neighborhood.”
Visits to the Chicago Stock Exchange and investment firm PEAK6 gave students a chance to learn about different career paths. Trips to the innovative gallery and media archive at the Stony Island Arts Bank along with Mackinac Island offered glimpses into other communities and customs.
“It is all about bridging the gap,” Taylor said.
Then in mid-March, COVID-19 hit and the Chicago-based nonprofits’ excursions came to a halt. Since MBMHMC could no longer take students on field trips, it figured out how to bring the field trips to them.
The organization went directly to the students, checking in via phone, text or email to find out how the pandemic impacted their family and what they needed – school-related or otherwise.
MBMHMC first addressed any emergency needs – like requests for non-perishable food, then went to work reshaping its Explorer’s Program to match the virtual programming requests made by the students.
“One was learning Russian, one was visiting Tokyo virtually, one was watching anime, and we have a lot of young artists, so someone suggested doing a drawing challenge,” Viet-VanLear said, listing off the teenagers’ suggestions.
Before rolling out its new online offerings, however, MBMHMC wanted to ensure all its Explorer’s Program students could still participate – so it gave a new Chromebooks to those who didn’t have a laptop at home.
“This helps the whole family out,” Taylor said. “Many don’t have a device, and those who do often had to split time on the computer with siblings who are also doing online learning.”
For Loryn, the new laptop meant she could continue in the Explorer’s Program and complete her online lessons without technical difficulties. “It just made it easier,” she said.
Since the pandemic, the Explorer’s Program organized a virtual tour of Jakarta, Indonesia, and an anime viewing session.
“We have seen a lot of grandmoms and aunts excited about what we are doing,” added Viet-VanLear.
“When you lift up young people and give them new opportunities, you also lift up the people around them.”