Sarah Elizabeth Ippel's eyes lit up as she peered into the chicken coop at the edge of her school's playground.
"There are a few in there," Ippel, 31, said, pointing to several eggs recently laid by the three resident chickens. "Whoever finds them first will be like a celebrity."
Moments later, first-graders poured out of the Academy for Global Citizenship and pooled around the gardens they had planned and planted. A girl in purple wandered over to the coop, carefully lifted out the eggs and showed off her discovery before taking them into the school's zero-waste cafeteria, where they would be among ingredients used for their scratch-made organic lunch.
For the 300 kindergartners through fifth-graders who attend the Spanish/English-language charter school Ippel founded five years ago in the Garfield Ridge community on Chicago's Southwest Side, schoolyard chickens and gardens are part of life as usual. This is a school that emphasizes environmental stewardship and wellness to achieve its mission of developing mindful, world-conscious leaders.
They practice yoga every morning. Every classroom has a worm composting bin. They track the school's energy production in its Solar Energy Learning Lab.
For Ippel, test-proven academic success and international recognition for the school in the largely low-income, minority community are further evidence that no one can tell her what she cannot do.
Ippel was 23 the first time she rode her bike to the Chicago Board of Education to present her vision. She was rejected. Three years and three proposals later, she opened AGC in a former dental tool factory. Now as it grows to eventually include early childhood through 12th grade, she is raising money to develop a $30 million, 11-acre campus as a center for sustainable innovation.
In 2011 Ippel was named one of Monocle magazine's Top 20 international pioneers in education; she received a national award from Michelle Obama for her nutrition program. Last year she was appointed one of 100 delegates from 20 countries for the G8 Young Global Leaders Summit.
For Earth Day on Monday, Ippel's students will hold a "peaceful protest" against the use of plastic and march through the neighborhood picking up trash, plastic and compostables. The sandwich shop Hannah's Bretzel, a long-standing collaborator with the school, will donate 25 percent of its revenue from all of its locations that day to AGC.
Here is an edited transcript of our conversation.
Q: What are some of the ways in which you've seen how the school transforms lives?
A: Not really a day passes where we don't have a parent coming into school with this "aha" moment, or a story from the weekend of their child refusing to throw anything into the landfill. ... We see students lugging in all these bags of compost. Parents say that they can't go to the grocery store with their child without them telling them to put more broccoli into the cart and to not put chips in the cart. The 5-year-old is telling the parents that that is not a healthy choice. So we have a lot of anecdotal stories of children who have really made an impact on their families and an impact on their communities.
Q: Could you tell me about your plans to build a new campus?
A: We saw this challenge as a very interesting opportunity to really design a prototype of what learning in the 21st century could look like. ... We see this campus as a model for how we can address multiple needs that exist in our underserved communities through one solution. And that's really by thinking differently about what a school can be in a community. So we've identified a site here in the neighborhood where we plan to create the first net-positive energy campus. So the campus will produce more energy through clean renewable sources than it uses in a given year. We'll incorporate several acres of restorative urban agriculture and food production.
Q: What were you like as a kid? Super-precocious?
A: (Laughs) I prefer to use positive terms like "innovative thinker." My parents would use terms like a troublemaker and stubborn. But I like to think that I was just thinking outside the box and I was determined and committed. But, no, I was a very peculiar child. I grew up in a family with five children. My mother had triplets when I was 4. And from that day on, I was very independent. I went to a school that supported the philosophy that all children were to do the same thing at the same time and learn the same way, and that didn't align with my interests very well. So I was always launching things and writing letters to the administration and teachers informing them of how I was going to be doing my spelling words. I had business cards when I was 9 years old, and to my parents' dismay was handing them out. I created a summer camp at my house where I was charging my neighbors.
Q: How do you find balance?
A: I try to balance my life in a way that we promote balance here at school. We eat positive foods that we know benefit our brains and our bodies. And we practice yoga every day. And I try to live by the same philosophy. ... I think it's important to find balance by balancing hope and positivity in the midst of the challenges that we see every day.
Q: Was there ever a moment when you thought, this isn't going to work?
A: There were a number of challenges and hurdles in proposing the school to the Board of Education. Challenges and hurdles that turned many people along our journey away. We would receive feedback that really put out the fire in certain people's spirits ... that what we were doing was too sophisticated for these children, and if we were going to propose this model, we should focus this on another demographic of children. So it was very disheartening for all of us to see that these expectations and these beliefs were held in some people's minds, that not all children have the capacity to learn and that maybe we should focus our energy on kids who have a more promising future. This was devastating. For me personally, this added to the determination that this had to exist; that was not negotiable. This school had to exist.
Q: Can you name one initiative that you're particularly proud of?
A: We have these students who are very passionate entrepreneurs. And it's funny because I see myself in them. We had fourth-graders who came up with an initiative to alleviate poverty in our community by improving access to positive foods. ... Another student learned that not everybody in our sister schools has a backpack, so she launched a whole drive where everyone was bringing in backpacks. What it tells us is to think about the skills the students are developing. Being critical thinkers, being problem solvers, being innovators, being effective communicators. And to think what that will equate to into their adulthood really does profoundly inspire a new way of thinking
"Jane Goodall is a hero of mine," Ippel said. "She once said, 'The greatest danger to our future is apathy.'"
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