Reflections on 2013 Urban Education Service Trip

Sayda Morales

On Saturday, March 16I hopped on the Bolt bus headed to Portland for the Urban Education Spring Break Service Trip. Sitting on the bus, looking out of the window, I could not have predicted the impact that my experiences from the trip would have on my perceptions of education reform, and more importantly, of myself. The 12 of us, Whitman students from various grades, socio-economic statuses, racial backgrounds, religious views, and unique walks of life hopped on the Portland public transit everyday at 7 a.m. Our destination was Emerson charter school, but it was our journey rather than the service itself that made the trip so memorable.

In a nutshell, Emerson is a K-5 public charter school where the classes consist of two grade levels. For instance, in the K-1 classroom students have the experience of learning from the older students as well as of then teaching the younger students the next year. Emerson also believes in positive discipline, which means that the punishment fits the action and that the punishment is kind but firm. Lastly, Emerson is a project-based school, which means that students work exclusively on a project for about a month. For instance, a K-1 class’s project was shoes, which meant they went on various field trips to Nike or shoe shops and had guest speakers come to their class. At the end of the unit they had an open house where students had stations and presented on what they had learned.

The students at Emerson are taught what it means to take responsibility for one’s own actions. Because they believe that the city is their school, they are constantly interacting with the real outside world. Therefore, it is no surprise then that these children are so mature and articulate. To be honest, it was a privilege for me to sit in on their classes and class meetings because I learned so much about empathy and curiosity from them. The tight-knit Emerson community has had positive effects on the confidence and inquisitiveness of the students.

I would not say that Emerson is the model of a perfect school since students still experience problems such as bullying. In addition, since the school is predominantly white, middle-class, the students of color and their families admitted to feeling uncomfortable. However, when issues like these arose, the administration immediately did everything they could to address them, such as having discussions and coming up with solutions. If anything, the Emerson administration’s commitment to maintaing a positive and safe student experience is what all schools should constantly strive towards, including Whitman.

At the end of each day, we would return to the church we were staying in and have group discussions. Although I would also find myself engaging in thought-provoking conversations with other participants throughout the day. We all opened up and shared our experiences with and our opinions of the education system in this country, as well as other topics such as race, gender, sexuality, religion, mental illnesses, and class. I came into the trip having pre-conceived notions such as the biased opinion that charter schools are the future of education, but I am now walking away with an open mind to other possible solutions and perspectives.

During the trip we also volunteered at Northwest Children’s OutReach and Impact NorthWest. But even though we helped them, they did us a service by opening our minds and shifting our outlook on education and life. I can only speak for myself, but I know that I returned from this service trip with 11 new friends, knowledge about various education systems, and a firm belief that compassion and creativity are two key values that must integrated into the education reform movement in order to ensure that the movers and shakers of the future are caring and accountable individuals. If I had to describe my overall experience in three words, they would be as follows: inspiring, informative, and hopeful.