One day after Chicago inaugurated its new mayor, hundreds of Chicago students put their ideas together and presented solutions to tough problems facing their schools and their city.
From building portable closets for homeless students to developing a radio show to help find missing people, students from 60 Chicago public schools dreamed up about 100 projects. They showcased their ideas at an event organized by Mikva Challenge, which helps promote civic engagement among youth, and CPS on Tuesday.
Students from at least eight schools also highlighted school cleanliness, building maintenance and school food quality as areas that need to be improved.
Kelsey Campbell, a student at Juarez High School, described the food at her school as “90% of the time disgusting.” A regular lunch, she said, is burned pizza and warm milk. She said students often complain of stomach aches after eating and blame it on the food.
Campbell belongs to a civic engagement program for CPS students that brings in partners like Mikva Challenge to connect students with experts and resources. She and other students hope to meet with school officials to offer solutions, including allowing outside food in schools and ending CPS’ contract with Aramark, the company that distributes the food and cleans schools. Campbell said the district should hire smaller nearby vendors instead.
“That will make the students and the vendors happy at the same time,” Campbell said.
Last year, the Chicago Sun-Times found that more than 100 schools cleaned by Aramark had failed sanitary inspections.
At Taft High School, students are tackling issues of poor bathroom maintenance and cleanliness.
“In one of our first-floor bathrooms, there is a pipe issue … , so water comes up from the floor and leaves the entire floor of the girls’ restroom covered in a mini-lake,” said senior Tatum Thompson. She said bathrooms also lack enough soap and feminine products.
Thompson and other students are advocating for what she considers easy fixes, such as giving the bathroom a fresh coat of paint and fixing the plumbing. She said Taft officials are considering those ideas.
As students developed these projects throughout the school year, they learned about their city’s power structure and education system.
“One of the things that students learned is that our principal doesn’t have any control over the Aramark contract, that’s a CPS decision and that’s a city decision,” said Johanna Fernandez, a social studies teacher who’s been working with students on their projects at Juarez.
Fernandez said her students were excited because they knew Mayor Lori Lightfoot had also fought for better school lunch options when she was a student.
During her swearing-in ceremony, Lightfoot addressed Chicago’s youth, saying, “We need your energy, creativity, intelligence and dedication. There’s hard work ahead of us. But we will do that work, because we believe in you and in the vast, still-untapped potential of this great city.”
Moving forward, the students presenting their projects this week said they hope their concerns and recommendations don’t fall on deaf ears.