A group of West Carroll sixth graders recently traveled to Chicago's West Side to interact with students from Altus Academy, a local not-for-profit private school.
When Altus Academy opened its doors in 2001 in the basement of a Chicago convent, it had one teacher, 16 students and a boiler room that doubled as a cafeteria. Since then, the college preparatory middle school has grown.
The school is located near the intersection of Sacramento Boulevard and Lexington Street in North Lawndale, long considered one of the toughest neighborhoods on Chicago's West Side.
The mission of Altus Academy is to "develop students with the strength of character and academic excellence to succeed in college preparatory high schools, college and beyond." The school is partnered with Northern Illinois University, providing a variety of hands-on programs to the students.
West Carroll Middle School sixth grade teacher Bill Timm learned about the academy in 2016 through an article in NIU's magazine "Northern Now.” Excited by the article, he began looking into visiting the school. Last spring Timm and WCMS sixth grade teacher Mary Jo Kelley visited Altus Academy and met with its administrator.
"The idea came up of wouldn't it be cool if we could bring our kids or vice versa," Timm said told the Mirror-Democrat/Times-Journal in an interview.
Timm sent letters home to parents this year about a trip to the Chicago school. He said some chose not to send their children, fearing for their safety. Timm said the academy is located in one of the "roughest" police precincts in the area.
On Oct. 13, two of the sixth grade classes traveled by bus into the Chicago area, before taking the train to Altus Academy.
"It was a perfect day," Timm said of the experience.
The group road a "full loop of the train (approximately an hour) to give the students time to enjoy the experience and see the different people who ride the train each day to get to work or school.
Timm said all of the sixth graders loved riding the train and were surprised to see how it fills to capacity. Each student held their own ticket and Timm said one student said she felt "so adult."
On the walk from the train station to Altus Academy, Timm made an effort to talk to everyone he passed. He said it helped that it was a sunny day and he was wearing a Cubs shirt. He said at least one of his students was at first hesitant to say hello to the people on the street.
Upon arrival at the school, everyone was welcomed by the Altus students. A variety of mixers had been planned, allowing the West Carroll sixth graders to mingle with and learn about the Chicago students. The mixers included interviewing other students, a human scavenger hunt (where you find people meeting certain criteria) and more.
"The kids really mixed well," Timm said. "I had several kids comment, 'Oh, I made a friend.'"
Students went outside for some of the mixers. The academy's outdoor space consists of a parking lot wedged in between two buildings. The group of West Carroll and Altus students then walked to a nearby park to play.
Timm said one of his goals for the trip had been to introduce his students to children in different situations than them and show that "just because you're poor doesn't mean you're a criminal." He said most of his students had never seen such an old school building without amenities such as a gym or a hot lunch program.
"It was really a great experience for these kids," Timm said, adding that several of the parents who served as chaperones told him they were glad they allowed their children to participate.
The West Carroll group spent approximately four hours at Altus Academy before making their way back home.
Terming the trip a success, Timm said he plans to continue a relationship with Altus Academy. Next year he hopes to have the entire WCMS sixth grade visit the school in Chicago.
This winter West Carroll plans to return the favor, welcoming Altus Academy to WCMS. Students from the academy will be visiting on March 27.
The sixth graders have been doing several projects and class work based on their trip. This includes a video project to show the Altus students what "rural life" is like. Timm plans to take the visiting students to Mississippi Palisades State Park, Manny's Pizza and a local dairy farm.