Local Woman Channels CPS Kids' Creativity

A North Side mom committed to giving children across Chicago a voice has launched a nonprofit venture that's grown to include 21 Chicago Public Schools. She's hoping to expand the project to all areas of the city.

What began as a graduate school project for Lincoln Park resident Rachel Switall has spawned into a longterm initiative to foster self-esteem and creativity among Chicago's public schoolchildren.

Switall, who has two kids of her own, is the woman behind StudentsXpress, a quarterly publication dedicated to, "connecting Chicago students through their words and art." The free print magazine is a reflection of contributions from teachers, secretaries and other staff members at 21 Chicago Public Schools throughout the city, many of which are on the North Side.

Every student at every participating school gets a copy when the product is printed. Although its circulation currently looms around 13,000, Switall said she hopes to one day see that number grow to 300,000—that would include all prekindergarten- through eighth-grade kids in the CPS system.

"There are a lot of benefits but the main one, to me, is building confidence in the kids," she said. "When they see their names in print, next to other kids who are across the city, they feel like they can do anything. But I think it also promotes creativity and thinking outside the box."

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Flipping through a given publication, you'll find children's artwork, poems and other creations that all center on a specific topic. Switall starts the process by posing a question to those who submit student work to her.

She's printed publications focused on teacher appreciation and life in the city, for example. The in-progress edition set to come out in March is geared toward celebrating Earth Day and being environmentally friendly.

Switall first embarked on creating a school-based magazine about 20 years ago while completing her master's degree in graphic design at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Desperate to create a voice for students in the former Cabrini Green area, she worked with The Peace Museum in Chicago—it has since closed—to reach out to schoolchildren about solving problems without using violence. They responded to the question and Switall published their answers in Peaceful Times. 

Though StudentsXpress' first issue was printed in December 2011, Switall has compiled similar publications for several years under different names. The concept as it stands started at Hamilton Elementary School, which serves grade school students on the west side of Lake View and a portion of Roscoe Village. Her now 10-year-old son was at Hamilton in 2008 when she created Tiger Tales.

She took the concept to her son's next school, NettleHorst Elementary in Lake View. A contest to name that publication yielded Nettle to the Metal.

All along the way, Switall has partnered with advertisers, sponsors and parent groups, through which she was able to drum up some monetary support to put toward the cost of printing. She's even received grants in the past to make the venture possible.

StudentsXpress officially launched almost exactly one year ago with five schools on the North Side of the city and five on the South Side participating. The periodical remains a nonprofit endeavor and Switall is always searching for support. To help, she's recruited longtime friend Diane Magerko.

"She has a good heart," Magerko said. " … I so believe in what she does. When I first saw StudentsXpress, I said, 'I have to help this woman.' I thought, 'How in the world has she done this all by herself?' She is so so talented."

The pair is brainstorming ways to pay for the free publication, as well as how to spread the word to all faculty in the city's public school system. To fundraise, Switall is contemplating selling a collection of children's artwork that she edits using her graphic design skills. She calls the effort "Raspberry Kids."

"The whole point was to not have to go into the schools and say 'I need money,'" she said. "This is free and I'm committed to keeping it free."

Those wanting to support local education institutions can visit Pockets restaurant this Sunday, Dec. 16, from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., when 25 percent of all purchases will be donated to the school of their choice. Extra copies of StudentsXpress will be available at all three participating locations—3001 N. Lincoln Ave. in Lincoln Park; 4301 N. Lincoln Ave. in Lincoln Square; and 205 E. Ohio St. downtown.

To see a full list of StudentsXpress participants, visit its website. If you know any faculty members in a Chicago Public School who would be interested in submitting student work to StudentsXpress; potential advertisers or sponsors; or someone who can help with the venture in any way, e-mail rachel@studentsxpress.com.

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