UChicago student volunteers foster creativity and belonging at South Side school

Music and medicine help teach lessons to neurodiverse kids in Kenwood neighborhood

University of Chicago student Alli Marney-Bell was surprised to discover a unique tool for connecting with autistic students while volunteering on the South Side of Chicago: the expressive power of music.

At City Elementary, a K-8 school focused on empowering diverse learners  in the Kenwood neighborhood, Marney-Bell noticed how music helped kids thrive and grow.

She was particularly excited to see one of her minimally verbal students express himself through sharing favorite songs, improvising in musical groups and composing with software.f

“He was very hesitant to raise his hand, answer questions or share his work,” said Marney-Bell, a fourth-year student in the College. “It was amazing to see him come out of his shell—and to see the music work to get him excited about learning and collaborating. It was a different avenue to talk about how emotions can be expressed with children who have autism. Honestly, I feel like it led to a greater appreciation of music for me.”

Marney-Bell was one of 33 UChicago student volunteers to teach this year at City Elementary, which focuses on fostering a positive environment for children who are neurodiverse—with diagnoses including autism, ADHD or learning disabilities that make traditional classroom environments overwhelming or anxiety-provoking.

Leveraging the unique passions of College and graduate students, and their expertise in fields from music to medicine, UChicago’s nearly decade-long partnership with City Elementary has generated a series of programs and classes which rethink and revitalize how neurodiverse kids experience elementary school classrooms.

“I think it’s been a key for UChicago students to have the opportunity to not only understand neurodiversity, but also do something positive with it. Being part of these kids’ lives in a really meaningful way, I see them coming back happy and talking about how this was the best part of their week,” said Christopher Flint, Head of School at City Elementary.

A new take on neurodiverse education

UChicago’s eight partner programs with City Elementary allow student volunteers to foster creativity and belonging for neurodiverse students who often feel left out in conventional classroom settings.

The Music Sociality program, led by Jennifer Iverson—an associate professor in the Department of Music and board chair of City Elementary—leverages collaborative and discussion-based activities to improve social skills in a fun and welcoming environment.

“Music as a practice is inherently very communal. There’s so much nonverbal communication, so much collaboration involved throughout the practice,” said Alejandro Cueto, a graduate student in the Department of Music and teacher in the program. “I think teaching in that context with students who are on the spectrum is a cool way to work on social skills in a space where these students are really enthusiastic.”

For Iverson, discussing musical tastes or collaborating on a song can be perfect ways for autistic children who struggle with turn-taking to practice reciprocal communication and listening. 

“What happens if you don’t like something that your friend does? And how can you express your own opinion, but in a way that still demonstrates kindness for your friend? How can you engage in some position-taking and ask a curious question? These are the complex negotiations that happen when we’re in a musical scenario,” said Iverson.

Another UChicago partner program called Med-ucate makes navigating physical and mental health fun and engaging for neurodiverse children. 

“We wanted the kids to be able to know the basics about their bodies so that they can learn how to take care of themselves physically and mentally, in terms of health,” said Simi Golani, a third-year UChicago student who co-founded the program.

Exercises like calming techniques in stressful situations or locating local health resources are designed to foster independence for neurodiverse children, who are more likely to face barriers to improving their health.

“When we look at the data, it shows that [neurodiverse] individuals aren’t going to the doctor as much, and have poorer health outcomes than neurotypical individuals, because of a lack of access,” said Flint. “I think this program can help them understand and take more ownership and advocacy over their own health, which is fantastic.”

City Elementary’s other UChicago-led partnerships explore activities from dog clubs and philosophical discussions to drawing maps of the human brain. They allow student volunteers to share their passions in activities that are concrete, hands-on, and adapted to the emotional needs and interests of neurodiverse and autistic kids.

Cultivating first-hand knowledge

The University’s collaborations with City Elementary also provide on-the-ground knowledge of neurodiversity for UChicago students and future professionals in fields ranging from education to medicine to law.

“We’re training these UChicago students to become adults who are more sensitive to the kinds of access adjustments and environmental adjustments that will make the world a friendlier place for neurodiverse people,” said Iverson.

Through teaching and continuous feedback from City Elementary instructors, UChicago students develop best practices including avoiding noise and distraction, and developing the ability to meet students where their interests lie.

“When working with neurodiverse kids in particular, I think UChicago students learn how to be patient, how to put the student’s needs first and how to avoid coming at them too rigidly with their own plan,” said student volunteer and Med-ucate director Simi Golani. 

City Elementary also works with third- and fourth-year UChicago Medicine students, who complete community rotations as part of their medical training. Through tutoring about nutrition and health, they develop knowledge to help navigate interactions with future patients.

“They’re going to be urologists and they’re going to be general practitioners, and one day they’re going to get a neurodivergent individual that comes to their practice and they’re going to remember City,” said Flint. “And they can say: ‘I have a touchpoint to interact and help support this individual and their family in a way that I probably wouldn’t if I didn’t have this experience.’”

Knowledge and first-hand experience from the program even led one UChicago student, initially studying finance, to change her entire career trajectory.

“I’m now going to apply to law school to immerse myself in disability law, special education law, and family law to see how this issue affects families and what resources can be provided,” said Cristina Gaudio, AB’23, SB’23, who volunteered with City last year. “The program ended up changing my career in a way that I completely didn’t expect.” 

Meeting unique needs

Teaching at City Elementary also allows UChicago students to impact young learners as part of a close-knit social support network.  

With a 4:1 staff-to-student ratio, City offers individualized guidance to ensure progress and a sense of belonging for each student. The school aims to make that model increasingly accessible. Around 25% of students at City Elementary benefit from scholarship. In addition, the University’s Diverse Learners Tuition Portability Benefit provides assistance for UChicago faculty and their children. However, City is looking to expand the support it provides to families.

“It’s really at the top of our priorities as a board—to promote the growth of the school in a way that’s not just about who can pay to access, but about what kind of a student is a good fit for City,” said Iverson.

The distinctive focus of City and UChicago student volunteers on the individual social needs and interests of each student has been felt among City Elementary families, many of whom faced inaccessible environments and rejections before finding a school offering tailored programs, flexibility and social support.

Sherley Chavarria, a City Elementary parent, noted the difference that the new environment made for her child. “He isn’t nearly as anxious or resistant to go to school…as he enters the building, he does so confidently. At home, he shares stories about what he’s learning,” she said.

The opportunity to impact kids in the community and foster meaningful and authentic interactions is also a key motivator for the student volunteers.

“I can confidently say of all the extracurricular things I've done, and I've tried everything, this is my favorite because I like the people,” said Maxwell Kay, a fourth-year involved in City’s partnership with Students for Disability Justice. “So much of school is abstract, but when you get to go somewhere and see that some kid has benefited from the effort you put in that day, that’s the most rewarding thing in the world.”

Click here to learn about City Elementary’s partnerships with UChicago.