Years ago, as a high school sports reporter, I learned to never underestimate the intelligence and poise of adolescents.
Their brains are still developing and they have plenty of life lessons ahead of them, but they are far more astute than adults think.
Berwyn Mayor Robert J. Lovero was reminded of this when sixth-grade students from Freedom Middle School invited him to attend a presentation last winter.
The students had brainstormed on a community project for Our American Voice, a civics-minded, project-based education program funded by a nonprofit that has been implemented in South Berwyn School District 100 and Chicago.
They told the mayor that many classmates were crossing three sets of railroad tracks despite the lowering of crossing gates for approaching and passing freight and Metra trains about a block away from school on Ridgeland Avenue near 31st Street.
“Kids are ducking under the gates,” said Mylee Puerta, 12, adding that most disregard lowered gates when they run late for school.
Surveys the students had distributed to classmates and parents indicated that dozens of students were gambling with their lives by trying to beat the trains. They caught classmates doing so on video.
“It was awful,” social studies teacher Christina Rizzo told me. “There was a freight train, then a [Metra], and the kids were just going.”
The students told the mayor and his public works director they needed a pedestrian overpass to avoid the tracks.
“They actually presented us three drafts of drawings,” Lovero said. “It’s a great project. An ambitious project. It will take a long time to get it done.”
That’s if it can be done. Lovero said it could cost $3 million and will require state and federal funding. The students are corresponding with lawmakers at all levels of government. Told they needed to make the bridge accessible to the disabled, they suggested an elevator, though a ramp seems more likely, Lovero said.
They endeared themselves to Lovero by initially offering to hold school fund-raisers. Most school projects associated with Our American Voice are completed on the dimes and dollars of students and their parents.
Mary E. Courtenay Language Arts Center, in Uptown, launched a tutoring program; Emerson Elementary in Berwyn raised more than $1,000 to switch from disposable lunch trays to reusable plastic trays.
Emerson was a featured school earlier this month on WBBM-Ch. 2, and fourth-grader Carla Murillo was thrilled to get a message from her father, who told her how proud he was after watching the segment on the Internet from his Army post in Kuwait.
“I told him it was a really big opportunity,” Murillo said. “We’re changing our community in the best way we can.”
The optimism of children is heartening and contagious. The Berwyn mayor certainly has been affected. He said city officials had looked into building an overpass on Ridgeland over the years since Freedom Middle School opened in 2005 but didn’t get far because of the cost.
With children speaking out, there is a sense of urgency to get it done. It’s hard to say no to kids over a life-and-death safety issue. Meantime, adult crossing guards and police should be hyper-vigilant to discourage students from crossing recklessly.
“Some people say it’s not possible,” Puerta, the Freedom sixth-grader, said of the overpass. “We say there’s no stopping now.”