A Look at Competency-Based Education in CPS: Shifting Chicago Narratives Project
STUDENTS | May 11, 2022
A Look at Competency-Based Education in CPS: Shifting Chicago Narratives Project

Students from four CPS high schools—Phoenix STEM Military Academy, Hyde Park Academy, Juarez Community Academy, and Curie High School—packed into the first few rows of the Gene Siskel Film Center, eagerly anticipating the premieres of short films that they had spent months working on. 

While they came from all over Chicago, these students shared at least one thing in common, and it wasn’t being professional filmmakers. Their schools have all embraced competency-based education, which uses hands-on opportunities and other strategic steps to center education more on what students are learning rather than the amount of time spent in a classroom. 

“We were told by our vice principal about this program where we would be able to share our stories and use our voices to tell things that haven’t been seen by other people,” said Vanessa, a student at Phoenix. “At first, it seemed like a lot of work and we didn’t know what to do, but after being encouraged to try, we actually had a really good time collaborating.”

Damarr Smith, who helps lead the District’s competency-based education efforts, explains that this project is the result of a partnership with Thrive Chicago and Communities in Schools to provide students with experiences that help them grow both their academic and social-emotional skills. 

He echoes the students’ sentiments that they were a little unsure of how the project would unfold when it started in January, but support from additional partners such as Apple and two production companies—We Are Light and 247HH—helped them gain confidence in capturing footage and planning out their finished videos. 

“I am proud that the students stayed engaged for the full length of this journey,” said Mr. Smith. “It shows that sometimes, you just need to step out of the way and let our young people lead.”

Students from Phoenix and Juarez took similar approaches to their videos, capturing their school communities’ thoughts on the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic by directly interviewing students and staff. The team from Juarez took their project a step further by drawing connections between the pandemic and the need for students of color to unite to strengthen their communities. 

“Hearing people’s stories, to me, is really big, and I love knowing that we came together to understand each other and learn about each other,” said Addis, a student at Juarez. “Our video reflects that we need more Black excellence in our curriculum, and we need action because actions are always more important than words.”

The teams from Curie and Hyde Park took their videos in different directions. At Curie, students explored the creation of the school’s new robotics team. They highlighted the connections between starting a new extracurricular activity and developing their leadership skills. 

“It’s really important to find your voice. At the start of this, I was kind of shy and not talkative,” said Natorian, a student from Curie who spearheaded the creation of the robotics team. “Being able to tell my story and my friends’ stories to form an overall bigger picture of robotics was beautiful because it shows that even with COVID, you can still be positive about it.”

At Hyde Park, peers Micaela, Trinity, and Mukia teamed up to focus on sharing Micaela’s story of overcoming tragedy related to gun violence as a way of inspiring others who are dealing with similar trauma. Micaela’s optimism and perseverance shine through, highlighting how CPS students can play a big impact in unifying their community around a shared goal. 

“Something I want to tell my community after watching the video is that you should never feel alone in any situation that you go through because there is always somebody out there who feels for you,” said Trinity. “No matter what you go through, you can overcome it.” 

“Always,” Micaela adds.