Prospect High School teacher Leigh Sapp searched for a pen pal program for seniors in Advanced Placement Spanish, and she found one -- not in a foreign country, but right in their own backyard.
For nearly six months, Prospect students have been exchanging letters with a group of Spanish-speaking students from one of Northwest Suburban High School District 214's alternative schools, its Newcomer Center in Arlington Heights.
Located within the Forest View Educational Center, it is the only full-time secondary newcomer center in Illinois. It serves about 36 high school students who recently arrived to the United States or are new to the English language.
The two groups met for the first time last week when Prospect students hosted their pen pals for a pizza lunch that definitely broke the ice.
"I was really nervous at first. I didn't think we'd have anything in common or would have anything to talk about," said senior Marisa Romanelli of Mount Prospect on her initial thoughts about being a pen pal.
She found herself pleasantly surprised once she started corresponding with Armando Ramirez of Rolling Meadows.
"We wrote about books and food. I love trying different kinds of food and he had lots of suggestions about Mexican food," Romanelli said. "I was really surprised at how easily the conversation flowed. He's smart and articulate.
"In fact, I thought he was my age," adds Romanelli, 18. "I was shocked to find out he was only 14."
When the two pen friends met last week, they found they shared even more in common. Both are good students -- Romanelli recently was named a National Merit finalist and Armando hopes to pursue a career in medicine.
"Her letters are good," Armando said. "They're about her life here and her family, but they help me to learn more about the American culture."
Another Prospect senior, Krzys Chwala of Mount Prospect, related to his pen pal, Rosa, as a fellow immigrant. While Rosa recently came to the Northwest suburbs from Mexico, Chwala's family emigrated from Poland.
"My first letter was very artistic," Chwala said. "I drew elaborate designs on it and even drew a self-portrait, but now they're more routine. She has great ideas for music to add to my Spotify list.
"But we've also exchanged what we went through," he adds, "and what the immigrant experience is like."
Sapp describes the pen pal program as "organic" in that the students have run with the program and are learning from each other.
"It also has a practical application for the AP test," Sapp adds. "They have to write a sample of an interpersonal communication, like an email. This is good practice for that."
Teacher Mario Perez accompanied the students from the Newcomer Center. He coordinates the program and also teaches social studies and reading.
While he said forming friendships through the pen pal program has helped with the students' culturalization, he also sees more benefits.
"It helps them feel as though they're tutoring instead of always being the ones who are tutored," Perez says. "It's reciprocal."