Karen Barsuto

Proviso Math and Science Academy senior Karen Basurto will get a chance to present her experiences helping out the Maywood Public Library at an education conference at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign this week. Basurto, with PMSA students Lizbeth Hernandez and Gabriel Garcia stepped up when the library closed temporarily after operating funds ran dry last October.

Basurto will attend the conference and present March 5 with PMSA teacher Michele Vogt-Schuller. It was in Vogt-Schuller’s “Nature of Knowledge” dual-credit classroom that students began to discuss the closing of the library last fall, Basurto said. 

“A lot of PMSA students use the library,” Basurto, who lives in Melrose Park, said. “We started talking about the issue in class and brainstorming ways to help out.”

The students ended up assisting the library’s citizen advisory group and presenting information about a federal grant for which the library was eligible.

“We will continue to act on behalf of the Maywood Public Library, which is a resource for all Proviso High School District students,” Basurto wrote in an opinion piece in the Forest Park Review.

“We are glad we are making a difference and are being seen as stakeholders in the library,” she added.

Even though Basurto said her group was welcomed by the library staff and later honored by State Representative Emanuel “Chris” Welch at a District 209 School board meeting Feb. 11, she said she was surprised no one in authority every considered asking teenagers for their input.

“It was surprising how much they took into consideration teenager’s voices, but they’d never ask. Because we’re teenagers — what do we know?”

Basurto and the others decided they didn’t have to wait to be asked. The experience was empowering, Basurto said. 

Her own experiences will be the subject of her co-presentation with Vogt-Schuller at the Scaling Up Pathways to Results 2014 conference held by the Office of Community College Research and Leadership. The conference focuses on “equitable student outcomes” for students of lower socio-economic backgrounds to achieve success in college. 

Part of her success was realizing her own ability, Basurto said.  

“Public decisions have been portrayed to be only open to business men and women talking to each other in a closed-off room with a sign saying ‘invitation only,'” Basurto wrote in December. 

 What helped her recognize the value of her opinions? 

Basurto credits the PMSA Mentorship Project and her experiences with Fabricio Balcazar, at University of Illinois at Chicago. With Balcazar, 25 students studied “Critical awareness” and communication and self-awareness. 

Balcazar, who’s been working with PMSA for four or five years, uses the teaching philosophies of Brazilian educator/philosopher Paulo Freire. Students teach each other about “the self-images of teenagers,” Balcazar said.

“I help them prepares the classes, but they build it themselves,” he added. “They are responsible for the teaching of class.”

“It’s very rare that a student gets to teach their peers,” Balcazar said.

Balcazar characterized Basurto was “a born leader.” 

Balcazar’s class works right into the opportunities provided by Vogt-Schuller, whom he admires.

“She is a very inspiring teacher. I’m a big fan of hers,” Balcazar said.

“She allows students to do this kind of work. I think we need more teachers like her, willing to innovate.”

Vogt-Schuller and Basurto created the presentation about the way PMSA students combined their efforts to help the library.

Students, with Vogt-Schuller’s help, met at Starbucks and planned via electronic media. They also offered to help the library with marketing ideas aimed at their peers.

“[Vogt-Schuller is] one of the greatest teachers I’ve had,” Basurto said. “She helped me understand so well, how much of an impact we can have right now, as students,” she said. “We were told we’re just students and we can’t get anything done until you’re adults.”

Basurto is the first person in her family to attend college. She has been accepted by University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana and Loyola University, but is now waiting to hear about financial aid. This trip to Urbana will be a chance to throw in a campus visit as well. 

“I was one of those students who floats by,” said Basurto. “I got my applications done, but  I have really grown with this,” she said. “I was just floating by with my future and my plans, but [the experience with the library] helped me focus a little bit.”

“I realized I could change this I could do that,” she added.  “I’m capable of going to college and fixing these problems,” she said.

The experience is even helping her develop a college major. 

“I was thinking of accounting or pharmacy, but I might get into education,” she said.  

Jean Lotus loves community journalism. She covers news, features, two school boards, village council, crime, park district and writes obits for Forest Park Review. She also covers the police beat for...