Chester, PA – For some families, summer means an exciting break from school schedules. But for many youth from inner-city communities, like Chester, it means too much free time. Chester has one of the highest unemployment rates in the Commonwealth and there is a lack of jobs and opportunity for both adults and children.

In a city where residents have a 1 in 37 chance of becoming a victim of violent crime, the lack of high-quality, engaging summer programming means youth may not have a safe place to go while parents are at work. Worried about their students’ opportunities during the summer months, Chester Charter School for the Arts’ educators, Frank Vaccaro, English Teacher and Brian Holm, High School Program Coordinator, partnered with the City of Chester to create service learning opportunities for CCSA students.

According to Mr. Holm, “The kids tried their best to get jobs and find programs, but there are few options and resources there. Instead of trying to chase something that didn’t exist, we thought, let’s do something together, let’s make our city better,” said Mr. Holm.

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Students and volunteers finish beautifying the Chester City Hall courtyard on Thursday, July 21 2016, the last day of Service Learning. Service Learning is a Chester Charter School for the Arts summer program that encourages kids to give back to their community through service work. 18 students and 2 teachers partook in renovating the space. (Photo by Martin Froger-Silva, 2016)

“Our goal this summer was to give the students a project that they could take control of in order to help their community,” explains Vaccaro. He and Holm did a lot of the work during the school year to make sure that students would have something to do when summer started. But when the 18 student volunteers came back on campus, the teachers say that they were blown away. “The students took complete control of everything and did most of the work – from pre-planning to getting everything here. I’m really proud to see our students take charge. They’re all determined to do a good job,” says Vaccaro. The students managed to get everything they needed donated, from tools to mulch, flowers, and even a new water fountain.

The teachers and 18 of their 14 and 15 year old students spent the last month designing and implementing renovation and beautification plans for the Chester City Hall courtyard. For two weeks, students planned the project, compiling information about local businesses, which they could ask for donations, writing solicitations, and coordinating volunteers’ schedules for on the ground work. During the next two weeks, they spent a total of sixteen hours working outside in the heat in order to give back to their city. “I’m so proud of what we accomplished, and even though it was hot and messy, we all had fun. People that don’t know the city of Chester will come to City Hall and think how beautiful it looks, and that will give them a brighter look of Chester,” says Aneesa Freeman, rising 9th grader. “It was a great opportunity to give back to my community and do it with the people I go to school with. I would definitely do it again!”

Councilwoman Elizabeth Williams, Director of Parks and Recreation at Chester City Hall, came to work with the students on the last day of the project, Thursday, July 21, 2016. She was excited to be joining the students from Chester and very happy to see so many young faces doing such good work for the city. “It says so much that the kids from The Chester Charter School for the Arts decided to take a month of their summer to give back to the city in this way. They’re learning that individually and collectively they can make a difference and be leaders in their community,” Williams said.

“This is the first year of Service Learning, a three-year summer volunteering program at CCSA. These students are ready and willing to spend three of their summers to dedicate their time to community service work,” explains Holm. After their senior year of high school, students will “go on an out of state service trip, which will be a good way for them to learn that good work can happen anywhere.”

CCSA opened in 2012 as a K-6 school and has been adding a grade each year. It is currently a K-10 school serving nearly 550 students and will be a K-12 school serving 650 students by 2018. CCSA currently is housed in a rented space just outside the City of Chester, but will relocate in September, 2017 to a new campus under construction at 1200 Highland Avenue. CCSA’s growth will provide a viable, high achieving public school to Chester children and their families.