Paying it Forward
SCHOOLS, STUDENTS | July 14, 2020
Paying it Forward

How Eighth-Grade Students at Bell Elementary Worked Together to Shape their Legacy 

The photos in this story were taken on February 28, 2020.

Justin V., one of over 30 members of Alexander Graham Bell Elementary School’s one-of-a-kind Legacy Crew, hopes that future eighth-grade students at Bell will consider joining the Legacy Crew as a way to amplify their passions and engage with the community.  

“When people think that they have nothing to say or contribute, I think that Legacy Crew should be a place where you can find your voice,” he said. “Legacy Crew gives you many ways to express what you think or help someone else express what they think.” 

Founded nearly 20 years ago by social science teachers at Bell, the Legacy Crew gives eighth-grade students a chance to collaborate with each other to learn how they as individuals can become engaged citizens. Members work together to educate fellow students and families about a specific topic that relates to their academic experiences by organizing fundraisers, giving presentations, and creating a mural that is permanently displayed on the school’s walls. Since the group’s impact reaches across all grade levels, current members say they were inspired to join by the students who came before them. 

“Legacy Crew has been passed down because students know it’s an opportunity to do something with their time that will benefit everyone in the school,” said member Sofia R. “It’s not just about benefiting the eighth grade. It’s about benefiting future generations to come.” 

In 2019, eighth-grade social science teacher Peter Barash and art teacher Shana Pearlmutter—the Legacy Crew’s teacher mentors—received the Civic Education Leadership Award from the district and the Obama Foundation for their commitment to molding the next generation of Chicago’s leaders by providing opportunities for students to investigate issues that are important to them. 

This past school year, Legacy Crew members chose mental health awareness as their topic, focusing specifically on the relationship between stress and anxiety for students. While members felt this topic was especially relevant to them because of the uncertainties surrounding where they would attend high school, they also wanted to begin educating younger students about dealing with stress in positive and proactive ways. 

“At least for me, I’m always stressed out about everything since I’m a perfectionist and I feel that I have to get everything right,” said member Sadie Z. “We chose this theme so we can help younger students who might join Legacy Crew later be more engaged on this issue.” 

Left to Right: Legacy Crew Members Evelyn B., Taylor B., and Justin V.

Crew members raised money for Erika’s Lighthouse—a non-profit that focuses on adolescent mental health—and coordinated a family night to teach other students and their families about making choices that build up self-esteem. They created a website that outlined ways for community members to get involved and also organized reading circles with younger students to help them develop a deeper understanding of activism and civic engagement. 

Mr. Barash says that the Legacy Crew exemplifies the concept of collective responsibility since students make a personal investment in making their school community stronger—both for current students and the students who will follow in their footsteps. He notes that members are always focused on impact. Instead of simply identifying a problem, they also recognize their ability to collaborate and create solutions themselves. 

“When you introduce students to core civic ideas when they are younger, they are infinitely more likely to carry those on,” said Mr. Barash. “Learning to challenge boundaries and break through barriers gives students the opportunity to see that in themselves instead of seeing those qualities as heroic and different from who they are.” 

The Legacy Crew has thought about how they can utilize what they’ve learned in elementary school to continue advocating for key issues in their schools and communities. Many of them want to continue to pursue civic engagement in high school, even if that means creating their own after-school club to foster collaboration among their peers. They also won’t rule out returning to Bell at some point to give a presentation about transitioning into high school. 

“The overall idea of inspiring those who are younger than us is something we’ll take with us after we leave Bell,” said Sofia. “Even when we get to be seniors in high school, we’ll still be able to be role models for the incoming freshmen by carrying on what we’ve learned and continuing to learn more.” 

Even though the Legacy Crew members are heading off in 30 different directions in the fall, their time at Bell has rooted them in a collective desire to learn, work together, and, ultimately, make a lasting impact on their community. Now, it’s up to them to continue their legacy.