Bringing 21st Century Learning to the West Side of Chicago

The New Sherlock Elementary

Something big is happening in Cicero School District 99. Kids are out of their seats, exploring and making new connections to their world. Welcome to education for the leaders of tomorrow.
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“Sit in your seat and face front.” If you are of a certain age, these words may bring you right back to primary school, picturing the faces of your classmates as you sat at your desk and tried not to fidget too much. While this classic approach to education helped keep classrooms orderly, current research suggests that kids may actually do their best learning when they are away from a desk.

Rudy Hernandez, Superintendent of School District 99 in Cicero, a suburb on the west side of Chicago, Illinois, has a vision for young students. It’s exciting, and it’s giving children opportunities that they may otherwise not have. The district has torn down a smaller, traditional school at Sherlock Elementary to build a large new space for the next school year that promotes flexible – and sometimes optional – seating and a truly integrated learning approach that will help students go further than they ever did before.

“We did a lot of research and looked at the corporate environment. And we saw that in a lot of the bigger companies they were using open spaces and they would work in collaboration. So we want to get our students ready to handle that,” Hernandez says. “So Sherlock means more than just being able to fit more students in there; it’s to enhance the learning experience, creating a new STEAM concept.”

STEAM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math. It’s an educational approach that is all about exploration, dialogue and critical thinking. Students are encouraged to take risks, work collaboratively and to problem-solve. And while the individual teacher’s approach is important, STEAM needs an overall environment that allows students to step outside the traditional classroom to fully put this approach into action.

School District 99 serves a largely Hispanic community. There are currently just under 1,300 students among 16 schools. Sherlock Elementary School was originally a small school that held about 220 students. The new $34-million Sherlock Elementary, now under construction on the same grounds, will hold nearly 650 students from pre-kindergarten to the sixth grade, and will take Superintendent Hernandez’s commitment to the STEAM approach to a whole new level.

“It will have optimal spaces everywhere, flexible furniture to expose children to more exploration so that they can develop that critical thinking rather than just looking at subjects, so that they can be those problem-solvers, the critical thinkers, and become the leaders of tomorrow,” explains Hernandez.

Flexible furniture means open seating arrangements as well as a mix of different types of furniture to help put students in the most advantageous place to learn. “When you are in education for a number of years, you tend to see the different trends as to how children learn,” Hernandez says. “They are able to manage a number of things at the same time. And they don’t like to be sitting in rows. They like to move around, they like to be on the floor and they do just fine.”

And Hernandez should know. He has been in education for more than 20 years, with experience in both the high school and primary settings, and in roles from teaching English as a second language and math to school principal, before becoming superintendent. “I think we spend too much time telling children what they should do instead of exposing them to what they can do,” he says. “Our mission is to give them the exposure to technology, to engineering – anything they want to do, we’ll support it.”

That is the vision behind the Sherlock school design. The building will provide a lot of open spaces for teachers to take their instruction into what are called “learning areas” in the hallway. These spaces are designed to host any kind of instruction that a teacher wants to offer to engage kids. For students, it will be like going on a field trip when they step into a different area of the school with a very different look and feel from a traditional classroom.

“We worked with the architect to accomplish the goal of the theme school. The way it’s going to operate will be very different from the other schools in the district simply because of the setup.”

Add to this modern robotics that kids can explore and a laptop for every child, and you are stepping firmly into a 21st century learning environment. What is really exciting and transformative is not only applying technology to everyday learning, it’s the integration of science and the arts into the teachers’ curriculum to help spark creativity in young students.

“By taking an integrated approach to learning, you would be surprised at what the kids can do,” Hernandez says. “We have kids who are competing with high schools and even colleges. They are really stepping it up and they are ready, they want more. We really want to give our students what everybody else has. We live in an area that is not so financially healthy but if we get creative, we get resources that they need, and that’s really our mission.”

The new school will be at the center of this holistic approach of educating not just students, but the entire community. It will be open to the community, providing programs for parents so that they can come for instruction and be part of the children’s education team. By learning more about the technologies the school has for students, parents cannot only help their kids learn, they may have exposure to topics that they might otherwise never encounter in a hands-on way.

The school will also be open to the community to host activities, so local groups can plan workshops and fundraisers. It’s this virtuous cycle of helping build the community that is another big part of what the new Sherlock will bring.

To continue with the status quo was not going to help children or the community of Cicero in the long run, Hernandez says. In fact, he has a motto he loves sharing with his teachers and staff: “Good is not good enough. We want excellent!”

To this end, the state-of-the-art school will also have teachers who are firmly committed to an integrated curriculum and the STEAM approach. “It’s fun to see that everybody is excited about it,” says Hernandez. “It’s the talk of the town. We have a lot of parents asking, ‘how do I get my kids there?’”

When you ask him what success for Sherlock Elementary looks like, Hernandez will point to the future. “We want to create a pathway for our future engineers, doctors, architects, attorneys. I tell my students I want them to build a rocket ship because I want to be the first to go in it!”

Building the Next Generation

As thousands of experienced workers retire across North America every day, it is small wonder many industries are concerned about the future. It has been a decade since the oldest members of the baby boom generation started leaving their jobs, removing from the workplace decades of experience and skills that are tough to replace. The situation is so dire that, when younger workers are not available or knowledgeable enough to take over, retired staffers are often called back to work on a part-time basis.

November 15, 2019, 8:33 PM EST