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Chicago high school honored as one of the ‘World’s Best’ for mental health work

Two adults and two students stand in an auditorium at Curie Metropolitan High School in Chicago’s Archer Heights neighborhood.

Curie Principal Homero Peñuelas, left, student Joey DeLeon, student Ruby Ayala, and teacher Melinda Wilson stand inside the school’s theater hours after winning one of T4 Education’s “World’s Best Schools” award. The school will use the $50,000 grant to fix up its aging auditorium.

Mauricio Peña/Chalkbeat

Before the sun came up Wednesday in Chicago, cheers filled a multipurpose room at Curie Metropolitan High School as news broke:  

Curie had been named one of the “World’s Best Schools.” 

The Southwest Side high school is among five schools — and the only school in North America — awarded a $50,000 World’s Best School Prize by T4 Education, a global organization based in London. Curie, which was recognized for supporting students’ mental health, will use the money to fix up the school’s aging theater.

After the live announcement streamed on YouTube, students, staff, and administrators jumped around and embraced one another as confetti billowed around the room — celebrating a moment of victory for a school grappling with pandemic disruptions and the impact of gun violence that left one student dead earlier this year.

“We put a lot of work into supporting our students,” said Principal Homero Peñuelas. “To be recognized on a world stage for the work that we do, it’s a great feeling.” 

The award is a testament to the work faculty, staff, and administrators are doing to provide students with mental health supports, wraparound services, and art enrichment programs, he said. 

Along with a behavioral health team, the school has a dedicated arts program to tap into the talents and ambitions of its students, offering a number of classes including dance, drama, animation, orchestra, choir, electronic music, art, sculpture, and guerrilla art. 

Students say Curie’s arts programs have played a pivotal role in their lives.

“Whenever you dance you forget everything around you,” Ruby Ayala said. “You just want to dance.”

The school’s robust arts programming and its focus on supporting students impressed the panel of 200 judges, said Salman Shaheen, T4 director of communications. 

Curie’s mental health support coupled with its arts programs is transforming lives, he said.

Founded two years ago, T4 Education is focused on connecting teachers from across the world to improve education globally and share best practices.

The World’s Best School Prize, a partnership with American Express and Accenture, set out to find schools that made tangible impacts on the lives of its students and the wider community, Shaheen said. This is the first time the prizes are being awarded. An application for the 2023 awards will be released next month. 

Other winners include Dunoon Grammar School in Scotland, Escuela Emilia Lascar in Chile, Project Shelter Wakadogo in Uganda, and Bonuan Buquig National High School in the Philippines.

Curie, the neighborhood high school on Chicago’s South West side, serves nearly 3,000 students, most Black or Latino. In July, Curie student Tierra Franklin was shot and killed. The 17-year-old’s family said she was looking forward to graduating this year and had dreams of becoming a lawyer.

The grant funds will help the nearly 50-year-old school modernize the auditorium and allow the students’ “creativity to be on display,” Peñuelas said. “They get a great place to shine.” 

The Curie auditorium is overdue for some upgrades. 

During musical productions last year, seniors Ayala and Joey DeLeon recalled the sound booth failing, curtains breaking, and lights going out.

Despite the mishaps, being onstage was a “beautiful moment,” DeLeon said. 

Curie dance teacher Melinda Wilson applied for the grant to support students’ emotional and mental health growth through art programs. 

Fighting back tears, Wilson said her life was dedicated to giving students healthy lives and supporting them on their journey. She recalled the moment she learned the school had gotten the award:

“I went to the moon and back,” Wilson said. “I never expected it to happen, but it means everything to me. Today is one of the finest days of my life.”

Mauricio Peña is a reporter for Chalkbeat Chicago, covering K-12 schools. Contact Mauricio at mpena@chalkbeat.org.

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