After seven years of teaching on the South Side of Chicago, Michelle Navarre had come to believe that a hands-on approach to education, where work in the classroom is strongly connected to the real world, is the best way for all kids to learn. After researching the local landscape, she found there was a clear need for a public school option dedicated to this kind of learning, and took matters into her own hands. In 2007, Michelle founded Polaris Charter Academy, a public charter school where “students could level the educational playing field through a real world, deeper learning approach.” A decade later, STC is honored to recognize Michelle with the 2017 School Leader RFK Urban Education Award.

Since Polaris opened, students have been thriving, and Michelle–who didn’t set out to be a school leader–loves seeing the impact that this type of education is having on kids, and in turn, how they are impacting their communities. Michelle says that she fell into school leadership because she believes “we all have a responsibility to actively engage [in] solving the problems our country is facing.” Michelle took on that responsibility by starting a school, and her students take that on each year as they tackle big challenges through their projects.

The Peacekeepers Project–through which students wrote a book, created public service announcements related to gun violence, and hosted a Day of Peace–was born out of a close study of the Constitution and Bill of Rights. “Our 7th grade students moved from the roles and structures of government to asking the critical question – “what is my role as a citizen in affecting change for the better for myself and others?” Michelle explains. After reading cases like Brown vs. the Board of Education to learn about laws directly affecting students, and meeting with aldermen, activists, and clergy in the community, “students were empowered to take action in response to the pressing problem of gun violence.”

“Our students attended school everyday and worked for accuracy and quality because they knew their work was challenging and important and that it would serve a purpose larger than taking a test for [a] good grade [and] so they could get into college someday,” Michelle said, explaining that the endgame of education isn’t just getting into a good college, but rather, shaping a better future and better life. “In their reflection on the Peacekeepers Project, the students emphasized the significance of the study in elevating their voice and their efforts in solving a community problem. Moreover, they discovered that they could achieve far more than they thought possible. This is why designing learning that is relevant and connected to the real world is so important,” she noted.

One of Michelle’s proudest moments as a school leader was when four Polaris 8th graders took the stage at a national conference in Atlanta to deliver a Keynote address about the Peacekeeper Project to an audience of over a thousand educators. “I remember sitting there, watching these young people deliver a half hour presentation sharing their learning, and through their presentation, become a proof point for educators from around the country about the power of real-world learning,” Michelle exclaims. “This moment was an opportunity to step to the side and let students share their work with a national audience. And in that moment realize the power their work has to impact the world.”

Michelle’s personal mission is to “support students, parents, teachers and school leaders to educate urban students to be self-motivated, creative critical thinkers with the ultimate goal of shaping real-world learning experiences that change the way students see themselves and the ways they can contribute to making the world a better place.” In her ten years leading Polaris, she’s seen “real-world learning expeditions be the “so what” that has been missing from education.” We have a feeling that the incredible impact of her work is just beginning.