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Polaris Charter Academy Receives Think It Up Award for Classroom Innovation and Excellence

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    April Hattori

CHICAGO – JULY 28, 2016 – Polaris Charter Academy will be honored with the inaugural Think It Up Award for Classroom Innovation and Excellence from the Entertainment Industry Foundation (EIF), recognizing the school’s students and teachers as “Pioneers” for their outstanding work on their Voices for Change podcast series and Peacekeeper Rally for a Day of Peace that explore race, stereotype, and gun violence in their West Humboldt Park neighborhood.

The national Think It Up award celebrates students and teachers who exemplify the great work happening in America’s classrooms. Polaris’ community-centered student-initiative to combat racial stereotypes and build positive relationships between youth and the police was selected from thousands of submissions by the Education Advisory Committee comprised of representatives from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, ExxonMobile, Ashoka’s Start Empathy Initiative, DonorsChoose.org, EL Education, Learning Heroes and America Achieves.

Polaris, which is one of eight winning teams of students and teachers who were selected from thousands, will receive $5000 in DonorsChoose.org funding credits that will enable students and teachers to continue their transformational work in the classroom. In addition to receiving the first-ever Think It Up Innovation Award, on July 31st, Polaris students Amiya Mahone, Andre Partee, and Jaquan Wade along with their teachers Molly Brady and Francesca Peck, will walk the red carpet at the “Teen Choice 2016” awards at the Los Angeles Forum, where their peacekeeping work and their Think It Up award will be recognized during pre-program activities.


As part of the Peacekeeper Project for the 2015–2016 school year, Polaris 7th and 8th graders used the powerful voices from their community combined with the pervasive modern media of podcasting to effect change. As active citizens, they created Voices for Change, a series of podcast interviews that feature community activists and peacekeepers discussing race, how to break stereotypes, and exploring ideas around how to combat gun violence. Students also organized and hosted the first-ever Peacekeepers Rally for a Day of Peace in Kells Park (June 5, 2016) that brought together students and their families, community members, and Chicago police officers to build positive relationships and celebrate peace in their West Humboldt Park neighborhood.

In the first seven months of 2016, Chicago suffered more than 2300 shootings with nearly 390 fatalities. In the words of Polaris students, “Many of us have lost family members and people we love because of gun violence. Some of us never got to meet our parent or grandparent because of it. We see people with guns. We hear gunshots outside. We have to have indoor recess at school when there are shootings in the neighborhood. We don’t have the privilege of always knowing you can be safe when you go outside, because sometimes we don’t know if we’re going to get shot or not. And it’s not fair.”

Think It Up is a national education initiative of EIF designed to empower students, celebrate teachers and spark a renewed sense of optimism about what is happening and can happen in America’s classrooms. On selecting Polaris Charter Academy to receive the first Think It Up Award for Classroom Innovation and Excellence, EIF President & CEO Lisa Paulsen stated: “From a pool of thousands of submissions across the country, Polaris Charter Academy’s stood out. We are inspired by Polaris’ efforts and delighted to have the chance to share the lessons from their exemplary classroom with educators across the country. We can’t wait to see what Polaris teachers and students will come up with next. We applaud Polaris’ incredible work and congratulate them for being a Think It Up pioneer.”

DonorsChoose.org Founder Charles Best added, “What an impressive group of teacher-student teams! These are among the most innovative ideas I’ve seen in the 16-year history of DonorsChoose.org. Not a small feat for this first year of Think It Up.”

On being honored for their important work in the community, Polaris student Amiya Mahone stated: “Every time we (Polaris students) are recognized and honored for our hard work in school it makes me feel like all of the effort we put into our project was worth it. It makes me realize that I do have a voice, and adults will listen to me. And that it might really be possible to be the change I want to see in my

Polaris’ Peacekeeper Project is a multi-faceted legacy project based in Polaris’ EL Education curriculum that allows students to engage and dive deeper into real-world topics, consult with experts, and create meaningful final products for audiences outside the classroom. The Peacekeeper Project grew out of the 7th grade social studies learning expedition in 2012 that began with the question “How do you effect change?” To answer that question, Polaris 7th graders studied the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution. They investigated how key individuals managed to change the course of history and effect change in the world around them. As they explored constitutional rights, particularly the Second Amendment, Polaris students were motivated by the data on gun violence in their own community of West Humboldt Park. Students found that 84% of their crewmates had been in the presence of a gun; 96% of them knew someone who had been shot or killed: 100% of them felt unsafe in their own neighborhood.

These statistics, coupled with the alarming number of fatal shootings near their school, compounded with the tragic killings of Trayvon Martin in 2012 and Michael Brown in 2014, led Polaris students to a deeper investigation into the complex issue of race and stereotype and gun violence in society today and compelled Polaris students to take action. Polaris students interviewed experts and peacekeepers in their community to explore and understand issues of race and stereotype in an attempt to change the world they live in and to carry out the promise made to all in the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal.”

Polaris students embarked on a mission, and through their work became powerful agents of change. They created a Day of Peace in the city of Chicago (June 10, 2012). They worked with Westinghouse High School seniors to create four original Public Service Announcements about gun violence to promote the day of peace. They wrote and published the impressive Peacekeepers of Chicago, a book honoring the local citizens who are dedicating their lives to bringing peace to Chicago, which is available at the Mayor Daley Branch of the Chicago Public Library.


Polaris Charter Academy is a Level 1school and the only public EL Education elementary school in Illinois and the first school in the Midwest to be recognized as a Mentor School by the EL network. Polaris serves 450 students and is located in the West Humboldt Park
neighborhood of Chicago. Ninety-four percent of Polaris students are low-income and 99% are African-American or Hispanic. Students “learn by doing” as they conduct fieldwork, speak with experts, work collaboratively, and create authentic, high-quality end products for audiences beyond the classroom. The mission of Polaris Charter Academy is to educate students to be self-motivated, creative, critical thinkers, with the ultimate goal of shaping life-long learners and citizens with a strong sense of personal and civic responsibility.


The Entertainment Industry Foundation (EIF), established in 1942, harnesses the collective power of the entire industry to generate awareness and funds for critical health, educational and social issues. Stand Up To Cancer (SU2C), EIF’s largest initiative, was established in 2008 by film and media leaders who utilize the industry’s resources to engage the public in supporting a new, collaborative model of cancer research, and to increase awareness about cancer prevention as well as progress being made in the fight against the disease. SU2C accelerates research to get new therapies to patients quickly. Since its founding eight years ago, Stand Up To Cancer has brought together more than 1,100 of the best and the brightest research scientists from 131 leading institutions in seven countries to work together on 19 “Dream Teams,” and six Translational Research Teams. SU2C-funded researchers have planned, launched or completed more than 160 clinical trials involving over 8,000 patients. Work by SU2C-supported researchers has led to FDA approval of two treatments. Over the last three years, Hunger Is, a joint charitable program of the Albertsons Companies Foundation and EIF, has significantly raised awareness of childhood hunger in the United States and over $12.5 Million to support breakfast, afterschool and out-of-school meal programs.


Think It Up is an initiative to empower students, celebrate teachers and spark a renewed sense of optimism about what is happening and can happen in America’s classrooms. It is made possible through the generous support of corporations, foundations and philanthropists.Major supporters include The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, ExxonMobil, and Ashoka’s Start Empathy Initiative, as well as founding collaborator, XQ:The Super School Project. Think It Up is a program of the Entertainment Industry Foundation (EIF), a 501(c)(3) charitable organization.


Founded in 2000, DonorsChoose.org makes it easy for anyone to help a classroom in need. Teachers at over 70 percent of all the public schools in America have created project requests, and over 2 million people have donated $440 million to projects that inspire them. Over 18 million students—most from low-income communities and many in disaster-stricken areas—have received books, art supplies, field trips, technology, and other resources that they need to learn.

It makes me realize that I do have a voice, and adults will listen to me. And that it might really be possible to be the change I want to see in my community.”