NORTH PARK — Northside Learning Center High School has been busy with upgrades and additions to better serve students when they return.
The school, which serves students ages 14 to 22 with intellectual disabilities and impaired adaptive functioning, renovated its decades-old greenhouse, wrapped up construction on its new sensory garden and finished building improvements like putting up indoor murals, getting new furniture and doing a full paint job.
The garden and indoor improvements were completed in June after two-and a half years of work thanks to a grant of about $70,000 from community nonprofit Chicago Cares and Discover. The greenhouse was completed in mid-November with funding from Chicago Public Schools.
The school’s student-run cafe, which opened in June 2019 and was also funded by the grant, partners with Edgewater’s Metropolis Coffee Company to teach students how to make coffee drinks, customer service and money exchange. Architects added a special touch to the cafe’s tile floors: little coffee beans.
The school principals said the projects are a big win for the curriculum, which offers a range of educational programs and employment opportunities for students to get involved with the community, foster independence and learn vital life skills as they enter the adult world.
“We really want to always look at what our students can do and not what they can’t do,” said Principal Karren Ray.
The greenhouse program is one of the most popular ones and teaches students about sustainability, how to grow plants and how to give and follow directions, Ray said.
But the greenhouse had deteriorated, making it difficult for students to use the space safely, especially since some have medical concerns and are sensitive to temperature changes.
After pushing for funding to replace the greenhouse for nearly five years, and with help from Ald. Samantha Nugent (39th), CPS provided $1.2 million from its 2019 budget for renovations, Ray and Assistant Principal Elizabeth Mourtokokis said.
The greenhouse received a full upgrade, Ray said: new walls; tempered double-paned glass that’s also used at the Garfield Park Conservatory; a new heating and cooling system; new pipes and new automatic shades.
The space will also have five student tables and beds to grow herbs, vegetables and plants, though the pandemic halted growing plans.
“The students will be very excited to see the new greenhouse,” Mourtokokis said. “I am sure they can’t wait to have classes resume … hopefully sooner than later.”
Students learn how to care for plants on campus and, once they’ve improved their green thumb, they head Downtown.
“As seniors, students go down to the Board of Education building and maintain all the plants there and they run multiple plant sales,” Mourtokokis said.
With only 67 out of 241 students returning for in-person learning come January, Mourtokokis said the greenhouse program, cafe and other hands-on vocational offerings will be paused until more normalcy returns.
Students will still be able to take a walk in the new sensory garden with an aid or a counselor, one pair at a time. The garden, which the assistant principal said had been her dream, will stimulate and engage people’s five basic senses through visual, physical and emotional stress relievers.
“Our kids, they have rough days or moments, and they just need a space to decompress, relax and take a walk and be with nature,” Mourtokokis said.
The garden features sculptures in green, red, blue and yellow, as well as aromatic flowers and nasturtiums, edible plants with red flowers that contain high levels of vitamin C.
Mourtokokis is working with an occupational therapist to install talk tubes and wind chimes for the students, and the school’s fundraising organization is raising $20,000 for two accessible paths to be added to the garden.
“The only piece left of my puzzle is I want a fully accessible path so that my students in wheelchairs and walkers can access it to its fullest,” she said.
The fundraiser has raised more than $13,000 so far. Those who wish to donate can do so online or text Northside to 44321.
‘There’s A Bit Of A Legacy To The School’
Nugent, a longtime supporter of the school, helped push the CPS budget through to get greenhouse funding. She called the high school “a very magical place to be” and said the faculty, students and alumni are integral to the Northwest Side community.
“There is a vibrancy when the students are here,” Nugent said. “The tentacles the [faculty] have in the community really blow my mind. I hear about their work from every part of the ward and there is a bit of a legacy to the school.”
Aside from its greenhouse and cafe programs, the school is known for its car wash class that teaches students how to properly care for cars, its bike repair class that partners with Rogers Park bike co-op The Recyclery Collective and its apartment class, a classroom outfitted as a full apartment to teach students how to do laundry, how to make a bed, how to cook, clean and take care of personal hygiene.
Parent Jason Ruiz, a member of the high school’s Local School Council, said parents and teachers fought for years to get funding for the greenhouse. He said his 18-year-old son, Valentino, is looking forward to taking the program again when it’s safe to do so and to see the sensory garden.
Ruiz is a big supporter of the school because of the opportunities it’s given his son, who has autism. Ruiz remembers touring every high school in the city looking for an adequate program for his child, but he was disappointed with the way they treated students with special needs. But Northside Learning is different and treats all of its students normally, he said.
“Northside Learning is the high school. It’s not a program in the back of the school where your child gets paraded around during Autism Awareness Month and then gets shoved back into the hallway,” Ruiz said.
The single father called the school a saving grace for Valentino, who he said has learned responsibility, maturity and other transferable job skills from the school’s programs. And with e-learning’s challenges, Ruiz praised the faculty for spending time with the students virtually.
“The teachers have been extremely patient with their time, energy and making sure the kids are doing the best with what they have,” he said. “What a gem the school is for CPS.”
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