Sylesha Brewer accepting her 2018 RFK Urban Education Award

Originally published June 15th, 2018

Sylesha Brewer joined LEARN Charter School-Campbell Campus, a public charter in Chicago, just last year, but the 5th grade math teacher  has already made a big impact. In her first year at Campbell, Brewer and a fellow teacher collaborated to foster an environment across their two classrooms that calmed one of the most challenging classes to ever pass through the school. To do this, they worked to ensure  consistency, to create opportunities for independence, and to keep students so engaged in learning that they were motivated to improve their behavior just so they could participate each day.

By December of that year, Brewer, along with two other teachers, dreamed up the idea of a student-run, healthy school store. Brewer says her students decided to open a healthy school store to combat the lack of healthy options not just in the school, but in the community. “When I started at LEARN Campbell, the social worker, Gigi Simmons, already developed a partnership with WE,” explains Brewer. “During the year, Simmons invited me to several different sessions led by WE and the movement to promote a real life problem-solving start. A LEARN teacher by the name of Marcel Rockett led a class discussion after noticing a majority of the students opting out of lunch and going to a vending machine for snacks. Rockett approached administration and coworkers about the idea of a student-operated store. During this process, I immediately jumped at the opportunity to help.”

To make it happen, they partnered with the WE Schools Program, and raised funds to push forward an idea that seemed unattainable to most of the staff and administration due to logistics and limited space in the building. Initially, the WE Healthy School Store opened out of a closet in a 5th grade classroom. Because of the success the first year, the store has now been given a large office to use as its official  store space, and the whole project presents us with a brilliant example of real-world learning in action. 

When asked what compelled her to pursue teaching, Brewer says “My high school teacher left a lasting impression on me that inspired me to pursue college and later on, the field of education.” Brewer discussed this in her RFK Award acceptance speech, when she explained “he pulled me aside and made me see my potential. He was sneaking me college level work and took me to visit Michigan State and something magical happened…I did all the things I needed to make college a reality for myself.”

The experience not only put Brewer on a path to her field, but gave her a personal mission: “My personal mission as a teacher is to create a safe space for my students to share, learn, create, and build on ideas in an engaging, realistic manner.” Again, in her speech, Brewer said “I want to be that type of [teacher] for my students and want them to feel that they can attain their dreams.”

That’s exactly what she’s done. In addition to educating 4th and 5th graders on issues in the community like the lack of opportunity to purchase healthy foods around the school, Brewer and her colleagues teach kids about  nutrition, the importance of healthy eating, and how the store can influence a larger change. She also taught them how to participate in choosing what products are sold, and gives them hands-on experience working in positions from cashier to sales consultant.

“The opening of the WE LEARN Healthy Snack Store was one of the most astonishing moments of my career,” Brewer remarks. “It was that Monday morning that my students were able to celebrate the long journey that was sparked by a student in class. Just to be a part of something so life changing definitely makes me feel like I am in the right field.”

Now, students from all grades bring money each day to go to the WE Healthy School Store for lunch and breakfast in order to purchase healthy options. This means students are engaging in the real world right in school: budgeting, purchasing items, exchanging money, and counting change in an environment that makes students excited to learn.

Brewer knows real-world learning has a direct tie to student success, and mentions an example of a student who thrived through real-world learning. “There have been numerous occasions where I have looked at my students in amazement,” she says. “However, the biggest moment was when I was able to witness one of my students speak onstage at the Allstate Arena. She was able to talk about the lack of healthy food options in her community and the impact that she and her peers made over the last two years.” Brewer’s student took the stage in front of thousands of people to speak at the Annual WE Day, a  celebration of young people committed to making a difference, all because of the opportunities Brewer and her fellow teachers provided.

The store has also created a domino effect as students and staff are seeing opportunities even beyond the store. Fellow teachers have begun initiating opportunities for students they didn’t think were possible prior to the success of the store.

A sense of purpose and positivity manifest themselves in Brewer’s work, and she thinks that ties into reimagining education through real-world experiences, too. “It is important for students to view themselves as their own heroes, fighting against the injustices and making change in the world,” she says.