As a mom with three grown kids, I’ve chaperoned my fair share of field trips. So I thought I knew what to expect when I recently met up with 30 Embarc sophomore students from Chicago’s Hubbard High School at the studio of Spudnik Press Cooperative. As the students streamed into the light-filled loft, they were told to drop off their coats and pick up an apron. Things were going to get messy. This was no ordinary field trip. Another Embarc “journey,” as they are called, was about to begin.
Embarc is a three-year program to inspire and prepare low-income high school students for college and career success. It was started in 2010 by two Chicago Public Schools high school teachers who understood the power of taking learning outside of the classroom for students who had little experience or access to a world beyond their neighborhoods.
Embarc now has 685 students in 14 high schools. Students take about a dozen of these journeys each school year, to do everything from a team-building ropes course at Brooklyn Boulders to learning math skills and catering tricks at the high-end caterer Boutique Bites. Each journey is geared toward opening the students’ eyes to possibilities.
“We target students who are sitting in the back of class, struggling,” says Katie Petersen, a senior program officer at Embarc. “They have one foot in and one foot out of school. We want to get to them before they drop out. With each of our journeys we want our students to have that ‘aha’ moment of ‘Oh my God, I just did that!’ Ultimately we want our students to think about ‘What can I learn today that I can apply to my life?’”
Part of what makes the Embarc journeys more impactful than a just a field trip is the prep work the students do in the classroom before the experience and the debriefing that takes place afterward.
A lot happened with the students before arriving at the Spudnik, a nonprofit print making community in the West Loop. They had class time to explored themes like self-expression, how art can be a form of resistance, and how they could bring about positive change through art. As part of the process they came up with their own messaging and symbols to represent Embarc and brought those ideas with them to the studio.
In just a couple of hours, their slogans “We Bloom Into Something Greater” and “Stay Positive, Work Hard, and Make It Happen” went from ideas on a page onto colorful ink-splattered mesh frames that transferred the images on to the shirts. The students quickly became experts with clamps, squeegees and spatulas — along with teamwork and creativity enabling them to be successful and have fun in the process.
These successful journeys pave the way for more success. Ninety-seven percent of Embarc students step into college, the military or employment after high school. To learn more about Embarc, to volunteer or to provide support, check out their website.