The debate over grade level centers versus neighborhood schools in River Trails School District 26 earlier this year left a community divided.
School board meetings were contentious, as parents argued for and against a plan that would have combined all district students by grade, not geography.
The proposal to establish two grade centers ultimately was rejected, but some bitter feelings remained.
Now a parent-led effort is bringing the district together, by focusing on students.
The "Track 2 Trails" program began this fall as a way to integrate fifth grade students at the district's two elementary schools, Euclid and Indian Grove. It's the brainchild of Becky Lippstreuer, the mother of a Euclid student, who said she wanted to make the transition to River Trails Middle School easier for the district's 173 fifth graders.
"I felt a lot of sadness and frustration for our community last year after the grade level center debate, especially for the students who saw or heard negative actions or words from adults," Lippstreuer said. "I hated seeing a community divided and wanted to create something positive for our students."
Euclid Principal Laura Gammons said morale in the district was low last spring, but something positive has come from the negative.
"It's no secret there were a lot of bad feelings there," Gammons said. "It really was Becky who stepped forward initially and said, 'Let's see what we can do to make things right for the kids. It's not so much about adults; let's focus on the kids.'"
Students from both schools were introduced to one another at a kickoff picnic in September. Each class from Euclid is paired with a class at Indian Grove, forming a total of four teams.
At school, students filled out a "getting to know you" survey and were paired with a pen pal from the other elementary school.
The students are scheduled to gather again after school Friday for team-building activities in a "Rock 'n Lock-In" at River Trails Middle School. Parents from both elementary schools and students from the middle school are volunteering as team leaders.
Lippstreuer is planning other events throughout the school year.
"We're trying to instill in kids that it's fine to be a Euclid or Indian Grove kid, but you're really a River Trials School District fifth grader," Lippstreuer said.
Other districtwide programs have been done in the past, including pen-palling and an outdoor education program, but Track 2 Trails includes more events, and is more social, said Indian Grove Principal Lynn Fisher.
"It does prove that there are a lot of similarities between the two schools and a lot of parents who want to see their students succeed," Fisher said.
Both principals said the program is being well-received by teachers, administrators, parents and kids across the district.
At the end of the kickoff picnic, a parent told Lippstreuer about an interaction between two students from different schools.
The student said, "Gosh, who would have known that you guys could have had so much fun."
Lippstreuer says that's a great reward.