Service has long been at the core of the student experience at Morgan Park Academy.
At one time that meant preparing for military service; now its centrality is evident in the school’s mission statement, which affirms a commitment to “preparing the global leaders of tomorrow to make a positive difference in the world.”
That takes various forms as students progress from pre-kindergarten through 12th grade, but the core focus stays consistent.
“Service and teaching students empathy for others is what positions them to make a positive difference in the world,” Head of School Mercedes Z. Sheppard said. “You have to care, and you have to know that the world doesn’t just revolve around you.”
With a whole-child educational philosophy, MPA faculty members recognize that each student has many talents, and help students realize the power they have to effect change in their world. Students cultivate their passions while also fostering a commitment to service learning and giving to others.
MPA holds two all-school service days each school year and requires that Upper School students perform 80 hours of service to graduate, but that ethos of reaching beyond yourself to help others goes beyond requirements. It’s learned through action every day on campus, from something as small as students holding the door or carrying a box for a teacher to larger, student-driven projects.
“It’s just part of who we are,” Upper School assistant principal Emily Drown said.
Students are introduced to service in the Lower School, learning about and doing their part to support local, national, and even international organizations such as Meals on Wheels, St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital, and the animal shelter PAWS Chicago.
This school year, fourth-graders built friendships with pen pals at Smith Village retirement community while fifth-graders focused on water conservation, partnering with the organization Water for Sudan for a view on the issue across the world.
We embrace the idea that children learn best when they are appropriately challenged and able to make a connection to their world. We provide service opportunities that meet actual community needs, which means our students can make real-life connections and also have input on which activities we pursue.
That focus on creating experiences for students to be directly involved continues in Middle School. Recently, for instance, sixth-graders volunteered to create a rotation for collecting recyclables from classrooms and offices on campus when they saw a need.
Last fall, after learning about Chicago youth who are experiencing homelessness, Middle School students used the proceeds from a recent walkathon to collect supplies and build hygiene kits for Teen Living Programs and Mercy Home for Boys & Girls.
They played kickball to celebrate raising donations for Kickball for a Home, a program of the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption that raises money to help find adoptive homes for children in foster care.
And in between, a steady drumbeat of smaller efforts to impact their communities.
“We try to provide enough opportunities and enough ways of doing service that hopefully students will find something they’re passionate about and find a way to help the world, whether that’s the world close to home or the world at large,” Lower & Middle School principal Heather Kurut said.
In Upper School, students pursue not only group service projects but increasingly, an array of individual efforts based on their specific interests.
Members of the Class of 2019, for instance, variously wrote a musical about mental health for teenagers; created videos to spread awareness about human trafficking; and volunteered at a local forest preserve while building a website to encourage more people to get involved.
Since 2003, MPA has hosted an annual Dance for Life show that is organized, coordinated, choreographed, produced, promoted, and performed by Upper School students, with all proceeds going to Chicago Dancers United, an organization that supports organizations and dance professionals facing critical health issues.
Upper School principal Tom Drahozal estimated that the majority of students graduate with at least double the minimum requirement of 80 service hours.
“They get into it because it’s a requirement to graduate,” Drahozal said, “but once they get involved, they continue past the requirement because they realize how meaningful it is.”
Students graduate, Kurut said, “having worked hard and having been academically challenged, but also having learned a whole lot about how to be a good person who can make an impact.”