The students in Kathy Grogan's gifted class at Pioneer Elementary School in West Chicago don't just excel in reading and math.
They are also award-winning community problem solvers. Last year, their Hug in a Bag project to help the homeless took first place in a state competition and qualified for internationals.
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Grogan's class the previous year took first in the state and third internationally for a playground-improvement project at Pioneer.
Now, her talented fifth- and sixth-graders are working on a new problem - the railroad tracks that run through a field near their school. Children often play there, and a 3-year-old girl was struck and killed two years ago. The goal of Project ETA (Eliminating Train Accidents) is to get fencing or warning signs in English and Spanish put up around the tracks.
"West Chicago was founded from having so many trains, and we thought it would be important to make it safe," said Nayeli Lara, 11.
This week the students learned from Mayor Michael Kwasman that plans for the fence are already underway, part of the city's settlement after the Canadian National Railroad's merger with the EJ&E. The 5-foot-high cyclone fence is expected to go up in the field this spring.
A new pedestrian tunnel on George Street near the West Chicago Community High School athletic fields will be built around the same time, Kwasman said. High school students on their way to school will no longer have to cross over the tracks, but will walk under them.
In a letter to the Pioneer class, Kwasman complimented the students on their dedication to making the community safer.
"When kids have an interest in the city they live in and take the initiative (as they did), that was very impressive," Kwasman said.
Learning that the fence was going to be built anyway hasn't derailed the students' enthusiasm for the project, Grogan said.
"They are very excited," she said, adding that students were prepared from the start that the fence might not happen at all.
The eight students in the Gifted and Talented Education (GATE) class - sixth-graders Gabby Gallegos, Lourdes Rosales and Nayeli Lara and fifth-graders Theresa Carriveau, Taylor Dehaeseleer, D'riah McCarroll, Guillermo Orizaba and Christopher Reyes - started by researching pedestrian-train accidents.
"We found out Illinois ranked second place in how many people have died," Lourdes said.
They measured the field and figured out how long the fence should be. Then, they put together a detailed list of parts and tools - from 720 feet of 111/2-gauge mesh galvanized chain link fencing for $1,286 to four 23/8-inch rail end bands at $1.01 each - for a total budget of $4,000.
They collected more than 100 signatures on petitions, and wrote the mayor, the head of the Canadian National Railroad, President Obama, Gov. Pat Quinn, both Illinois senators and news outlets.
Now, they are working on the six-page paper that will be part of their entry in the Community Problem Solving category of the Illinois Future Problem Solving competition.
Last year, most of the same children worked on the Hug in a Bag project, filling bright green bags with toiletries, a first-aid kit and a blanket, and delivering them to a local homeless shelter. After winning first place in the junior division for Illinois, the Pioneer students traveled to Michigan to compete against students from 46 states and a dozen countries. This year, the international competition is in Wisconsin.
Several students admitted that even they have played around the tracks in the past, but they all know now how dangerous it is.
"It does make them think about train safety," Grogan said.
And even after the fence goes up, West Chicago's children still need to be careful.
"The trains are here and they are protected by federal law; there's not much we can do about that," Kwasman said. "Hopefully, we can teach children how to stay away from them."