It could be his Southern hospitality coming through, or his memory of growing up in an urban area attending a school with very few resources. In either case, when Dr. Chance W. Lewis selects the cities for where the International Conference on Urban Education (ICUE) will take place, he makes sure he gives back to the host community.
ICUE is hosted biannually by the Urban Education Collaborative, an urban education research center at The University of North Carolina (UNC) at Charlotte working to improve K-12 urban education and quality of life through community partnership, under Lewis’s direction.
First held in 2014, the conference gathers K-12 urban teachers, policy makers, social workers and other community stakeholders for solutions-based discussions and presentations. This year, ICUE returns after a four-year hiatus due to COVID-19, this time in Cancun, Mexico from November 2 to 5. The excitement of attendees, said Lewis, is already palpable, So far, he has received over 290 applications for presentations, and registration to attend is currently open. ETS is one of the official sponsors.
As the Collaborative goes through all its proposals, some high schools (usually those who have worked with the Collaborative before) are also hard at work, selecting a diverse group of rising seniors who will study the culture in Cancun, the needs of the local people, and what it takes to create supply drives in a foreign country. Then, in November, the high schoolers and their chaperones will travel to Cancun with the ICUE conference and turn all their planning into reality.
This program, the International Student Fellows Academy (ISFA), has included past projects like finding and securing and transporting Spanish language books to Puerto Rico to create a library for elementary school children living in an orphanage. Another project, during the ICUE conference in the Bahamas, focused on gathering school supplies and bringing over sewing machines to build out a home economics program.
“The first thing we do is reach out to faculty partners in universities in each location,” said Dr. Stephen Hancock, an associate professor of reading and elementary education at UNC Charlotte, associate director of the Collaborative, and director of ICUE. “In that space, we ask faculty there what school you feel is in the most need of supply drive. Then I visit the school and meet with the leaders, and we sit down and discuss, ‘We’re coming in, and we don’t want to leave here without having an impact on you, and you on us.’”
The high school students cap off their work with a presentation, one of Lewis’s favorite parts of the convention.
“I think the part that touches my heart the most is once I see the high school students presenting at the conference. They're dressed up, looking good, they're nervous,” said Lewis. “Seeing their nervousness and excitement, but also their level of growth in learning about different cultures, because, like me at that time, all I knew was my neighborhood. You don't know what you don't know. And so now they, by the end, are getting to see how the rest of the world operates. This opens up so much for them.”
It's the same philosophy that Lewis and the Collaborative uses in their home base in Charlotte. Just across the street from their offices are a public elementary school and a public charter school. Lewis, Hancock, and their team of graduate students and researchers work with and within these schools, learning about and improving urban education. Every summer, the Collaborative’s building is one of 20 locations for Freedom School, where nearby elementary students are encouraged to stop by and spend six weeks focusing on literacy at no cost.
ICUE, said Lewis, is about recognizing the importance of urban education and giving educators the support that they need. At each conference, the Collaborative bestows the Urban Teacher of the Year award to a hard-working K-12 educator and covers the cost of their trip. Lewis said he wants the conference to be a place where educators actually want to come and leave with actionable solutions.
“I've tried to change the trajectory of what the conference is by shaping and reshaping the format, because I've gone to [conferences] where people come and leave with nothing,” said Lewis. “If I can give them an experience, if I can give them solutions, I can give them a great location, and I can put them in a room with people that they normally wouldn't talk to, that's the pillars of what we do.”
Liann Herder can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.