Near Midway Airport on the southwest side of Chicago, surrounded by truck repair shops and fenced-in U-Haul outposts, schoolchildren are raising chickens. At the Academy for Global Citizenship (AGC), a K–6 public charter school in a largely African American and Latino neighborhood, the students are the primary caretakers of Daisy and Puddles, who laid 16 eggs over winter break. The teak-stained chicken coop sits on the edge of an asphalt parking lot bordered by raised planter beds fragrant with lemongrass and sweet peas. Students feed the chickens, clean the coop, and collect the pale blue and light brown eggs before heading off to breakfast in the school’s zero-waste cafeteria, where students use reusable silverware, trays, and glassware. AGC pays about $11,000 more per year for organic milk and other local products because student nutrition and ecological sustainability are high on its priority list. Leftover food scraps are composted to reduce landfill waste and provide fresh, nutrient-rich soil for the schoolyard garden, where children learn about climate change, photosynthesis, pollination, math, and geography.

After breakfast, the wellness instructor leads yoga class to jumpstart students’ cardiovascular systems and prepare their minds for learning, which might be followed by a community meeting in which kids gather in a semicircle to identify humane ways to deal with classroom conflict. Over the course of the year, students will meet with local farmers and kitchen staff to select what to plant in the outdoor garden. They will take field trips to local architecture firms to learn about sustainable design and ride the city’s subway system, water taxis, and buses to learn about the energy costs associated with different modes of transportation. They will measure rainwater in a rusty, repurposed water heater that collects rainfall through an oil siphon to learn about water scarcity and seasonal weather patterns.

These small tasks and lessons create the tiny connections that make AGC students acutely aware of their role in the cycle of life and their larger place in the world—principles that coincide with AGC’s teaching model, the International Baccalaureate (IB) program, which strives to develop inquisitive and knowledgeable people, and which plays out at AGC through many layers of education. Learning vehicles like a demonstration wind turbine are precursors to the school’s master plan for a net-positive, Living Building Challenge-certified campus, which will demonstrate how environmental sustainability connects to students’ core education experience.


AGC students cheer as fresh soil is delivered to the school for its raised planters. Integrating sustainability and academics has served the public charter well: The school is outperforming the nearest public school by more than 32 percentage points in reading, 37 percentage points in math, and 19 percentage points in science. Photo: Caleb Fox

With 14 times as many applications as available seats, AGC is in high demand. But for Sarah Elizabeth Ippel, the founder and executive director of the school, launching a charter school under the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) umbrella and laying the groundwork for a net-positive campus has not been easy—it has been a long journey that has required courage, faith, and dogged persistence.

When Ippel was 23, she rode herbicycle to the Chicago Board of Education with what to her was a simple request: to reimagine public education. She had plans for a school that would serve a largely minority population and embrace a global perspective of international mindedness, social justice, health and wellness, and environmental sustainability. On hearing the proposal, several members of the board looked at her wide-eyed with disbelief. Others told her she was crazy. She strapped on her bicycle helmet and pedaled home. Not long after, the proposal was formally rejected.

Ippel was discouraged but not defeated. She’d recently graduated from the University of Cambridge, where she’d earned a Masters of Philosophy in Social and Political Science. During academic breaks, she traveled extensively, motivated by the diverse languages, histories, and cultures of her classmates and the immensity of a world far beyond what she knew from her upbringing in Grand Rapids, Michigan. She journeyed from dusty rural villages in Africa to bustling urban centers in Malaysia. She saw environmental degradation, cities bathed in smog, people living with AIDS, and the physical disfigurement of childhood malnutrition and obesity. These were deeply troubling problems without easy solutions.


Ippel has made AGC’s principles a reality since pitching the Chicago Board of Education at age 23. Photo: Caleb Fox

Yet for nearly every issue, Ippel also saw an inspiring model of education working to remedy it. In the West African country of Burkina Faso, students were writing letters to Tony Blair, urging the then-prime minister to eliminate Styrofoam throughout the United Kingdom. At another school, students were campaigning to fix a leaky water fountain, using basic math to calculate water loss and convince the school’s leadership to get serious about conservation. Small examples, Ippel admits, but when aggregated across schools and districts and countries, they had the capacity to inspire systemic change in educational thinking and practice. In July 2010, speaking at a TEDx conference in Denver, she put it more urgently: “We are living in a time when the world is screaming for audacious and sustainable solutions, and the only way we are going to create lasting change is through the education of our next generation.”

Ippel said several other interesting things at the conference—for instance, that 30 percent of the US student body never graduates high school, translating to an average of one dropout every nine seconds and an estimated revenue loss of $944 billion in lifetime public assistance. She pointed out that 1.1 billion people lacked access to safe drinking water and criticized No Child Left Behind, short-term thinking, cheap food, and corporate quarterly profits. She asked the audience to consider the future of Anne, a young African American girl growing up in an increasingly “environmentally volatile and globally competitive world,” and asked what would happen if we sought to help her do more than survive.

A year after they rejected her proposal, Ippel was back in front of the board. She was stiff-lipped and prepared, yet the board was not ready to budge. Not that she lacked compelling reasons for opening a new school. In southwest Chicago, an estimated 15,000 students lacked access to a public school seat. They faced—and still face—considerable obstacles to academic success: incarcerated parents, poverty, gang violence. The latest Illinois State Report Card shows that 84.9 percent of students in Chicago Public Schools qualify for free or reduced lunch, 31.9 percent are chronically truant, and only 35 percent meet minimum math and reading standards on the Prairie State Achievement Exam.

Food production at AGC currently is limited to a few raised beds and a small greenhouse. On its future site, the school intends to incorporate a minimum of three acres of urban agriculture, including vegetable gardens, orchards, and multiple greenhouses.

Food production at AGC currently is limited to a few raised beds and a small greenhouse. On its future site, the school intends to incorporate a minimum of three acres of urban agriculture, including vegetable gardens, orchards, and multiple greenhouses. Photo: Caleb Fox

It was not until Ippel arrived a third time, in October 2007, that the board approved the Academy for Global Citizenship as a Chicago Public Schools charter. Ippel says she believes she was successful because she took a different approach, presenting a data-driven proposal committed to rigorous accountability and a holistic framework proven to be effective with the demographic the school serves. Another factor may be that the nature of the public education discussion had shifted. Only a few years earlier, mayor Richard M. Daley had launched an education initiative that called for the creation of 100 new schools by 2010. These schools were to be models of best practices, held accountable for test-score performance through five-year contracts. The initiative signaled to Ippel that there was an urgent shift in the district’s approach to education.

The Academy for Global Citizenship welcomed its first 90 students in August 2008, and today, AGC operates in two buildings: a converted barrel factory serving kindergarten through second-grade students and the annex of the nearby Phoebe A. Hearst Elementary School, which serves grades three through six. Of the 350 students currently enrolled, 85 percent are Latino, 33 percent are English language learners, and 80 percent receive free or reduced lunch. The school’s mission, prominently displayed in the vestibule of the K–2 building, is “to develop mindful leaders who take action both now and in the future to positively impact their communities and the world beyond.”

In its six-year history, the school’s track record has been nothing short of remarkable. AGC is outperforming the nearest public school by more than 32 percentage points in reading, 37 percentage points in math, and 19 percentage points in science. The school published a Sustainable Schools Handbook that has been adopted by many Chicago public schools, as well as around the country and world. Six thousand visitors, many from other countries, tour the school each year. AGC was invited to the White House by Michelle Obama to be honored as the nation’s second recipient of a Gold medal in the HealthierUS School Challenge. It has been designated a National Green Ribbon School by US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, provided a Congressional Record from the US House of Representatives, commended by Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Governor Pat Quinn as a model for Chicago, and recognized by media sources as varied as Fox News, Good Morning America, The New York Times, and The Atlantic.

So what are they teaching these kids? The core tenets of the IB philosophy: a global perspective, multilingual education, cultural tolerance, and social and emotional wellness. Each is integrated into every aspect of the AGC school day, which could easily be the subject of a Portlandia sketch. Breakfast items include whole wheat crepes with strawberry compote and quinoa with dates and pecans. They attend a wellness class that combines elements of physical education, nutrition, hygiene, and schoolyard gardening. From kindergarten, they learn both Spanish and English. Each student has a “job,” which is posted on the classroom door; there is a class electrician, a librarian, a yogi, and a resident worm expert.

AGC currently operates out of a former barrel factory. Surrounded by property contaminated by a history of heavy industry, the future campus will transform a nearby site into a blend of plant, animal, and human habitats.

AGC currently operates out of a former barrel factory. Surrounded by property contaminated by a history of heavy industry, the future campus will transform a nearby site into a blend of plant, animal, and human habitats. Photo: Caleb Fox

Traditional subjects including math and history are taught in a transdisciplinary framework in which teachers incorporate all subjects into six-week units of inquiry, such as Local and Global Food Systems or Renewable Energy Processes. Like the concentric rings that stretch out on the surface of a disturbed pond, these units expand in scale while maintaining formal congruity. For kindergarten students, a theme in the unit How the World Works might be that “all living things grow and change.” In second grade, this idea progresses to “weather is a force of nature that impacts the everyday lives of humans.” Students in third grade learn that “simple machines make work easier for us by letting us push and pull over increased distances.”

Most importantly, students are taught to be curious. They are encouraged to experience things, to feel soil between their fingers, to ask questions and take risks. They rarely use textbooks or sit in desks. They smile a lot. They are remarkably well behaved.

Steven Biedermann, director of sustainability and operations at AGC, is a frank, articulate man with rimmed glasses who is known to work from three computers. He spent 16 years as an investment banker, working at Lehman Brothers, Fidelity Investments, and Banc One Capital Markets before leaving after September 11th with a desire to do something meaningful in the world. Thus began his journey into education. He volunteered for the Peace Corps, living without electricity or plumbing in a thatched-roof hut in Kiribati, a nation of 32 atolls in the South Pacific, where he survived off fish and rice and taught math and statistics to high school seniors. Three years later, he came back to Chicago and spent a number of years as senior investment portfolio manager of Chicago Public Schools—the only person in the building, he says, “who saw every dollar come in and out.”

When Arne Duncan was appointed as United States Secretary of Education in 2009, Biedermann says he felt frustrated by what he saw as a leadership vacuum. He went overseas again. He spent time working for an American NGO in Iraq, taught English to young monks near Katmandu, and met a woman who would become his wife in Bhutan, a predominantly Buddhist country with a government-sponsored forest conservation policy, a ban on plastic bags, and a net sink in greenhouse gas emissions. “Bhutan is the only country in the world where they measure gross national happiness, not gross national product,” Biedermann says.

In his final job before being hired at AGC, Biedermann served as chief financial officer at Namaste Solar, a Colorado company that has received national awards for its solar installations. Fittingly, Biedermann is especially proud of AGC’s solar learning lab, a cantilevered wooden structure that supports three solar panels and allows students to track on-site energy production. Funded by a $10,000 grant from the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity, the structure annually produces 850 kilowatts of energy. It was deliberately built in an area accessible to students rather than the roof of the school so it could be used as a demonstration model for lessons on renewable energy and climate change. The structure rests on a repurposed asphalt parking lot that provides the footprint for the school’s raised garden beds, a greenhouse that extends the growing season, and, of course, the chickens.

Core tenets of the IB philosophy include a global perspective, multilingual education, cultural tolerance, and social and emotional wellness.

Core tenets of the IB philosophy include a global perspective, multilingual education, cultural tolerance, and social and emotional wellness. Photo: Caleb Fox

To passersby, AGC is nothing more than a one-story beige-brick building surrounded by a chain-link fence. Inside, however, the school is designed to function as a “third teacher,” a term coined by Italian educator Loris Malaguzzi, founder of the Reggio Emilia model. In the school’s front corridor, a three-dimensional installation of the world’s seven continents is hung with revolving discs depicting regional ecosystems and food indigenous to those regions. The tropical rainforests and dry steppes of South America, we learn, produce peanuts, coffee, and passion fruit. The taiga and temperate forests of the Asian continent? Bok choy, chrysanthemum, and komatsu.

Nearby is a “breathing wall,” where a green assemblage of leafy plants and herbs sprout from pots resting in troughs. A color-coded map shows where Spanish, Chinese, Sinhala, Inuit, and 32 other common languages are spoken. A mural of a child’s internal organs serves as a lesson in food and body chemistry: how spinach guards against liver disease, apples improve lung capacity, walnuts and blueberries sharpen memory, and water and limes smooth skin.

Meals are similarly educational, designed to educate students about where their food comes from and the impacts of their nutritional decisions. For starters, all meals are 100 percent organic, made from scratch, and nutritionally balanced, thanks in large part to AGC’s head cook Heriberto Arriola, a man the children know as Chef Eddie. Eddie’s children go to the school, and when CPS budget cuts reduced his position to part time, AGC chose to hire him independently and give him a full-time salary. Arriola sources ingredients locally whenever possible—sometimes from just outside the cafeteria’s service entrance, where students grow tomatoes, radishes, basil, and eggplant from seeds.

Throughout the building are bins marked for landfill, recycling, or compost. Crayons and pencils go to landfill, paper and plastic are recycled, and fruit scraps and napkins are composted. After a daily afternoon snack, students dispose of fruit and vegetable scraps in vermicomposting stations where worms begin the cycle of decomposition. “Environmental sustainability and appreciation for the Earth are aligned with our mission,” Ippel says. “It’s part of serving the whole child, like teaching from a global perspective. They go hand in hand.”

Near the school entrance is a demonstration wind turbine, harnessing wind power to turn a bicycle-derailleur-like gear shaft that generates energy and powers an electric bulb. A sign at the base says, “Wind energy has been used for over 5,000 years dating back to the Egyptians. Wind has been used to sail ships, power windmills, and produce electricity.” But while the wind turbine is well-intentioned and instructive, it is hard to ignore that it is built on an asphalt parking lot.

A key part of Biedermann’s job is to supervise the creation of a net-positive-energy campus, which will provide expanded space and resources for lessons in environmental stewardship and ecological sustainability—a new and improved “third teacher.” If all goes well, the new campus could open as early as August 2016, on seven to ten acres within AGC’s current neighborhood. The campus will be the first school in Illinois to produce more energy than it consumes. The master plan, however, is dependent on funding, and although initial drawings planned for about 60,000 square feet of space, until a site is chosen, the actual size has yet to be determined.

Early site plans from Cannon Design show seven acres of agricultural land, outdoor classrooms, rain gardens, orchards, a solar-powered carport with plug-ins for hybrids, a production greenhouse, a wastewater wetland, and a swing set that generates energy—even a nomadic yurt camp for volunteer organic farmers. Some of these are wish-list items, Biedermann admits, but the goal of meeting Living Building Challenge (LBC) standards is within reach.

The LBC comprises seven performance areas: site, water, energy, health, materials, equity, and beauty. For the new AGC campus, that translates to community involvement in the design process, a minimum of three acres of urban agriculture, and at least 10 percent of the developed site dedicated to food production, clean- and renewable-energy production, and on-site water collection and treatment. If groundwater contamination is present—a reasonable possibility in a neighborhood with a history of heavy industry—an open-loop geothermal system will be integrated with the aquifer to begin a water filtration and cleansing process.

Students eat meals prepared by AGC’s independently employed organic chef, Heriberto “Chef Eddie” Arriola, whose own kids attend the school. Arriola prepares all food 100% organically with ingredients sourced locally—at times as close as the student-maintained garden plots outside.

Students eat meals prepared by AGC’s independently employed organic chef, Heriberto “Chef Eddie” Arriola, whose own kids attend the school. Arriola prepares all food 100% organically with ingredients sourced locally—at times as close as the student-maintained garden plots outside. Photo: Caleb Fox

Yet the school’s true motive in achieving the LBC is loftier: to create a prototype that will shift the way systems across the globe educate children. The net-positive campus is yet another teaching tool, a fully integrated, replicable model for learning in the 21st century.

One question remains, and it is not whether the school’s net-positive-energy campus will be built, but rather whom it will serve. Admission to AGC is determined by a blind lottery. “The odds are like Powerball,” Biedermann says. “I believe access to education for all children is a human right. We haven’t found out how to do that yet here in Chicago, let alone provide it for the rest of the world.”

At the enrollment lottery for the 2014–2015 school year, 92 people were crammed into the cafeteria to vie for 20 available kindergarten seats. (There are no openings for upper grades, only a wait list, though there is a policy to automatically admit siblings of a current AGC student.) One mother entered the cafeteria with her daughter—an aspiring member of the new kindergarten class—rocking another child in her arms. When her daughter’s name was eventually called, she began jumping up and down ecstatically. She understood the significance: her children’s futures, though not guaranteed, perhaps hold greater promise, thanks to the instruction they will receive at AGC.

Biedermann is hopeful not that every student becomes a doctor, but that all of them are empowered to become lifelong leaders and learners. “I don’t care if a child goes into construction or becomes a brain surgeon or a representative to the United Nations,” Biedermann says. “I want these children to be mindful leaders in whatever career they choose. Wisdom is the sum of learning and experience.”

Wherever these children go, and whatever they choose to do, they will go with the understanding that they are a part of a global network, an interconnected ecosystem that includes all living things, and they will go with the values instilled by their school’s founder: courage, faith, and dogged persistence.