Sixth Grade Social Impact at SCH

It’s a Thursday morning in early December of 2021 at Springside Chestnut Hill Academy. Paris Gramann, my 6th grade Social Impact co-teacher, and I have met with our new cohort of students for all of two class periods . . . a cumulative total of 110 minutes. Already, she’s forwarded me an email—sent to her by one of our students en route to school—that captures the essence of CEL’s entrepreneurial mindset. The two-sentence note reads as follows: 

Hi Ms. Paris,
I am on my iPhone so this may be quick, but I was thinking of a water filter prototype for CEL. Unfortunately, this is a bit lengthy but I want to talk about it for a possible water filter that can help homeless people with affordable pricing.

Experimentation and prototyping. Creative problem solving. A thoughtful willingness to put an idea out into the world. All from a 12-year-old who is ready to make change, eager to make our planet better for all its inhabitants. It’s a short message, but one that captures the attitudes and traits required to move the needle on the big issues and challenges that face our world . . . and shows how the students of SCH are embracing this work.

Rewind to May of 2019. At that time, I’m writing a young adult nonfiction book titled, Global Citizenship: Engage in the Politics of a Changing World. Throughout my research process, I scour .orgs and .govs for educators and students at the vanguard of social engagement. While on the site of the microfinance organization Kiva, I come across a profile of a middle grade course at Springside Chestnut Hill Academy in Philadelphia. In this unique class, according to the site, students learn about microfinance and host a craft fair to raise funds to invest in Kiva microloans. 

I follow the click path, land on the course website, and am floored to learn more about this 6th grade class that introduces the concept and practice of social impact. Immediately, I reached out to the instructor, Rene deBerardinis. This was a class—this was a program—that needed to be profiled, promoted, and emulated.

Rene was a willing partner in the writing process, sharing a bounty of information about the course’s underlying principles and its impact on students’ worldviews. We also came to discover that our work shared a common foundation—the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). While Global Citizenship took shape around acting on the SDGs, Rene’s course, in her words, asked “students to make decisions on who they will loan to through the lens of these goals.” In addition, the 6th grade classes “needed to support their lending decisions by applying the UN SDGs to their Kiva borrower situations.” 

This was real-world, inquiry-driven, problem-based learning at its finest, which I was delighted to profile in the book’s chapter on economic justice.  

As the book’s September 2020 publication date approached, I reconnected with Rene, who was just on the cusp of retirement. She invited me to pay the class a virtual visit, and introduced me to her incredibly dynamic successor, Paris Gramann. On a Zoom call that first pandemic fall, a new collaboration was hatched, one in which Paris and I would continue Rene’s evolving vision of crafting a trimester-long exploration of the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). 

Since then, Paris and I have co-developed a truly cross-disciplinary Social Impact course, one built on an exploration of the SDGs in local and global contexts. Students first study the 17 human-created problems that the SDGs address. Then, they seek out examples of social entrepreneurs who are resetting norms, advocating for justice, and remediating environmental wrongs.

What exactly does this look like in the SCH classroom? Students flex their academic muscles as researchers, interviewers, and critical thinkers as they examine their communities for “SDG Heroes” or people whose everyday actions help bring the SDGs to fruition. These heroes range from family members and neighbors to older SCH students working on “Venture Accelerator” projects. We’ve had students profile vaccine developers, beekeepers, counselors, and LGBTQ housing advocates. 

One of the best things about CEL is having the latitude to experiment, and the form that these biographies have taken is no different. Depending on the trimester, students have produced individual books, class anthologies, and collaged zines that highlight the profiled individual. Those works have then been placed on the online CEL shop—either as individual or anthologized eBooks—for family, friends, and community members to purchase. Carrying on the tradition started by Rene, the profits from all sales get reinvested by students in Kiva microloans.  

To close the trimester, as Paris Gramann explains, “we engage students with a final ‘SDG Personal Project.’” Paris notes, “Students choose one or more of the 17 SDGs that they feel most connected to and create one of the following options: a performance, a card or board game, a collage, or a household audit of SDG-friendliness.” Doing so reinforces that these 17 Goals are intricately interwoven . . . and helps students commit to educating others about the Global Goals. 

Educators can’t shelter kids from the world they will inherit. We need to equip students with the skills to meaningfully engage with social issues, not just in the future, but now. Across the K-12 spectrum, that’s what CEL does. Cheers to a successful first decade, and here’s to exponentially more years of doing this work at SCH!

by Julie Knutson, Author specializing in history, humanities, and the social sciences | Co-teacher, SCH 6th Grade Social Impact Course


Over the past 10 years, the Sands Center for Entrepreneurial Leadership (CEL) has become a cornerstone of the SCH educational experience. It is a program as substantial in its educational content as in its inspirational impact. In celebration of the CEL's 10th anniversary coming this May, we are publishing a commemorative booklet with the voices of those thought leaders who have had a role in shaping the CEL since its inception. We look forward to sharing these articles leading up to CEL’s milestone event as it continues to provide opportunity, devise creative solutions, effect positive change, and more for the future of education at SCH Academy.

Learn more: www.sch.org/cel

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