A group of students and alumni of the Japanese-English dual language program at Schaumburg's Dooley Elementary School exercised their communication and cultural skills across the Pacific this summer. They took advantage of their hometown's Sister Cities partnership with Namerikawa, Japan, and met their pen pals in person.
"We had a phenomenal trip!" parent and group leader Robi Vollkommer said. "The experience those kids were able to have was unbelievable. We felt like celebrities."
Ten students and at least one parent of each made the trip. Though not strictly speaking a school activity, the trip was partly funded by a not-for-profit organized by parents and supporters.
Because the school year is structured differently in Japan, the American visitors got to see some of their pen pals' academic life. Higashi Kazumi-Cho Elementary is significantly smaller than Dooley, though, with only about 75 students in the first through sixth grades.
As part of the regular physical education regimen at the school, students learn how to ride unicycles and walk with stilts, Vollkommer said. The kids from Dooley were eager to try it for themselves.
"It's for good motor development," she said. "It teaches them control and balance."
Dooley sixth grader Ian Dwojacki explained how the trip both confirmed and overturned his expectations of Japanese life.
"I expected that many things would be smaller and more compact in Japan. Especially in the big cities, homes and even our hotel rooms had no wasted space," Dwojacki said. "I was surprised that there was not more high tech stuff in their everyday lives. I expected to see more cutting-edge gadgets that we don't have here."
Being able to visit during the Japanese school year also answered a question Dwojacki had had about students' attitude to school.
"I was curious how kids would act when we saw them at school," he said. "When we visited our pen pals' school, they all seemed really happy to be there."
Vollkommer said the Dooley students were fortunate to be able to sample a smaller city like Namerikawa, largely off the tourist track, in addition to larger places like Tokyo and Osaka.
One of Namerikawa's claims to fame is its high concentration of firefly squid that live off the shore. The marine creatures even inspired the city's cute mascot, Kirarin.
Though the firefly squid are active and visible only in April, the students were able to learn more about them at a local museum.
Namerikawa has been Schaumburg's Sister City since 1999 and Vollkommer hopes exchanges between them will become more regular in years to come.
She's also a big fan of the learning potential offered by Dooley School's Japanese-English dual language program. Fluent in the two languages herself, she moved to Schaumburg specifically so her three children would benefit.
Though the program is open to all students of Schaumburg Township Elementary District 54 if space is available, Vollkommer's family moved to Dooley's attendance area so there would be no doubt of her kids' eligibility.