Embarc Takes Kids Who Have Never Seen the Lake on Journeys that Blow their Minds

Recently, my colleague Tanesha Peeples had the chance to sit down with Amanda Long, a former teacher at Fenger High, and Imran Khan, a fomer teacher at Harper High School. Khan and his Harper colleague January Miller cofounded Embarc, a nonprofit that partners with 18 CPS high schools to provide three years of community-based experiential education, or “journeys,” that inspire and prepare students for college and careers. Long was the first non-Harper teacher to join the work and later came on staff to head programming.

What sets Embarc apart from the hundreds of other youth-serving nonprofits in Chicago is its focus on filling in the experiences that the city’s most vulnerable youth often miss, whether it is seeing the lake, going downtown, or connecting with adults who can help them access careers. Embarc works with over 230 business and university partners who open their doors to student journeys.

Here is an edited transcript of their conversation. (It’s so great we’ll run a second excerpt soon!)

Peeples: How was Embarc born?

Khan: The program was born because we were there [at Harper] every single day with our students, teaching, listening to, and spending a lot of time with hundreds of kids. [At the time] we were part of something called “Turnaround.”

We were investing tremendous amounts of resources and dollars into the school: additional staff, additional curricular resources, partners and mentors. And some of the greatest challenges I think that our students were facing were completely missed, which is that we had kids who were deeply isolated from the rest of the community.

What we don’t recognize is many students are facing tremendous other realities that we have no idea about. We have kids who, by the time they’re 17, have lost seven or eight of their friends. They have passed away or been victims of gun violence. We have kids who eat breakfast from gas stations. We have students who don’t know anyone who’s ever gone to college.

At the same time, we are constantly putting our kids in schools and training them with these books and curriculums and with these aspirations that they have so little experience understanding, feeling, knowing, or being a part of.

It’s so hard for our students to understand how all of it works and so we decided that we were going to start taking students on journeys and field trips right away, to restaurants, theaters, universities, and businesses.

And immediately we saw a huge return on investment. Kids’ attendance, their grades, their test scores started to skyrocket. Many other teachers started to say, ”We’ve seen a dramatic change in the students that are going on these journeys, we want to have a part of that. Take these other kids.”

So, we went from a classroom thing to an afterschool thing. Immediately we started to see a massive change in so many kids.

Teachers who weren’t even doing it heard about it and they told teachers at other schools. And that’s where Amanda came in. Amanda was one of the first teachers that we launched Embarc to because she heard about if from another teacher and she was the first teacher in the Chicago public schools who said to us, “I’ve got to have Embarc for my kids.”

Peeples: Talk to me about the curriculum.

Long: The curriculum has been through several variations to get to the point where it is now. Honestly, it was fluffy at the beginning. One day I had an epiphany and I said, “Look, we’re trying to change lives.” So, we started to dig deep into some of the research from the Consortium at the University of Chicago around positive mindsets and the foundational components for young adult success. Their reports that have come out in the past few years were the research we needed to really catapult the curriculum to the next level.

Now the curriculum focuses a lot on social and emotional learning in the first year, building on passions and values and purpose, and helping our students to recognize what their own identity is and what they want their identity to evolve to be. Ultimately it connects them to career pathways and different outlets that they want to explore to start to craft their life path.

Peeples: Talk about an experience that stays with you from doing this work.

Long: Our graduates are having an impact on their families, younger people and the community around them.

Tatyana is one of those students. She goes to Intrinsic High School. I had my eye on her from the beginning. She would never speak out in class. One day we went to Brooklyn Boulders and did rock climbing. I remember pushing her really hard that day and ever since then, we’ve formed a bond.

Tatyana began to take more leadership opportunities in the classroom and also applied to our New York trip. We take 10 students a year to New York City and give them a VIP travel experience and then tab them with the title of Travel Ambassador for Embarc. She took that very seriously.

Now she considers herself an ambassador for the program and for her peers. This year, she started a girls’ mentorship group just on her own. All of the girls she mentors applied for Embarc this year.

Khan: Lonnie went to Harper High School. He ended up having kids before he graduated and was their sole caretaker. The jobs he had weren’t cutting it so he started hustling. Hustling got him two felonies and as a result, he couldn’t go to college because he get any loans.

The chances that he was going to commit crimes again and go back to jail were dramatically high because, at that point, he had no option.

But Lonnie didn’t give up and one day, he came to Embarc and said, “I’ve been working at Red Lobster and I don’t want the other life. I want to be here for my kids.”

So I thought about ways I could support Lonnie. We ended up sending him to one of our partners, Hogsalt, whom he had experienced through the Embarc program.

He started by volunteering because he had the right mindset. And he continued to volunteer, unpaid, and got called back in a month. He was promoted five times in the last two years because of his work ethic and what he’s learned and now has the highest paid position in the back of the house. He’s earning $55,000 a year working for a restaurant.

He has a job that he loves and it’s his role right now to help get more Embarc students into those positions.

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Maureen Kelleher

Chicago Unheard blog manager Maureen Kelleher also serves as a senior writer and editor at brightbeam, a nonprofit network of education activists demanding a better education and brighter future for every child. Before joining the brightbeam team, she spent a decade as a reporter, blogger and policy analyst. Her work has been published across the education world, from Education Week to the Center for American Progress. A former high school English teacher, she is also the proud mom of a middle-schooler. Find her on Twitter at @KelleherMaureen.

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