Many first heard of Chicago’s Harper High School in 2013 on “This American Life“. The radio show devoted two episodes to the school after a whopping 29 of its current and recent students were shot in a single year.
But Imran Khan first got to know the students there, on a much deeper level, when he began teaching at Harper in 2008. He saw firsthand the impact that poverty, gangs and violence had on his students. He also noticed that, despite living in the country’s third-largest city, the kids he taught rarely ventured beyond a several-block radius; it was simply too dangerous.
In essence, the students were isolated, leaving them without exposure to the people and experiences that could inspire them to go to college and then on to rewarding careers.
So Khan began taking some of the students on nearby trips — to restaurants, universities, grocery stores and museums. The journeys, he says, opened their eyes to possible career paths, like becoming a cook, a chef, even a restaurateur. Other students became more interested in the arts, or intrigued by fresh produce they had never before seen, let alone tasted.
“They had a distorted sense of self-efficacy and were not quite grasping [that it was up to them] to change their situation,” says Khan, who took what he learned leading these journeys and created a three-year extracurricular program, called Embarc, in 2010.
In the seven years since, Embarc has focused on providing real-world “experiences,” partnering with more than 250 local organizations and companies willing to open their doors to the low-income students who participate. Nearly 40 teachers at 20 schools have signed on to the program, which has been integrated into Chicago Public Schools’ course catalog, and Embarc is pushing to expand its impact both in Chicago and other cities across the U.S.
“It is imminently scalable,” says Eboo Patel, a mentor and founding president of Interfaith Youth Core, a Chicago-based nonprofit. “It’s a great three-pointer in a broader set of plays that America needs to have in order to level the playing field.”
Khan is quick to point out, however, that Embarc “isn’t a pity party” focused on society’s haves and have-nots. The journeys and experiences instead are built on fostering trust, goodwill and confidence.
For one team activity, students meet on neutral territory in downtown Chicago and separate into pairs. With adult supervision, they have about 90 minutes to find and check off a list of city landmarks. The rules? The pair of students must take two forms of transportation, and one of the them has to remain blindfolded.
“The fear level is so high, but everyone has to do it,” says Khan, 37. “After that, you learn massive amounts of trust and how to ask other people for help. That kind of journey can happen in any city.”
During restaurant visits, students can shadow employees on the job, chip in to help and taste a few dishes while learning about their ingredients. “There’s a sense of belonging and accomplishment,” says Khan.
Through these kinds of activities and tours, Khan is proving that experiential development has as much a role to play as cognitive development when it comes to education. Ninety-seven percent of Embarc’s participants have graduated high school, Khan says, and 93 percent have enrolled in college, including both two- and four-year programs.
“Oftentimes you hear complaints that young people are throwing away this education that’s been gifted or given to them,” says Simon Stumpf, director of venture and fellowship for Ashoka, a nonprofit that supports social entrepreneurs. But, he adds, Khan’s “sense is that they don’t know what door that key opens — we need to help them unlock intrinsic motivation so they can use that key.” Last year, Khan was selected as an Ashoka Fellow to help scale Embarc’s work.
Ultimately, foundations and grants may drive Embarc’s expansion outside Chicago. But Khan envisions a model that could move beyond donations — where cities, schools or partner organizations access an Embarc “blueprint,” and then scale the program in their own districts. Patel admits that finding long-term funding to support Embarc’s core mission will be tricky.
“You have to get lucky, and you have to be strategic,” he says.