BERWYN – It wasn’t the first time Berwyn officials were summoned to hear residents air their concerns on a community issue. But, it may have been the first time a group of sixth-graders at Freedom Middle School had the undivided attention of Berwyn’s mayor and the director of the city’s Public Works Department.
The issue was railroad crossing safety and students’ recommendation the city construct a pedestrian overpass at the Ridgeland Avenue rail crossing. It was one of many issues the group identified as part of its civic studies through the Barat Education Foundation’s Our American Voice program, which connects middle-school students to the democratic process through real world community problem solving. Students learn the fundamentals of American democracy, and at the same time, work to create positive change in their own community.
In Berwyn, the Freedom school’s voice chapter includes sixth-graders Angelina Adamiec, Alyssa Conrad, Angel Crespo, Stephanie Melchor, Mylee Puerta and Crystal Villa.
The group was first asked in October to think of issues in the school or community they believe need improvement, sixth-grade teacher Christina Rizzo said.
The students ultimately chose pedestrian safety near the train tracks at 31st Street and Ridgeland Avenue as their issue. Members of the group said they had seen firsthand other students taking big risks by ducking under the train gates.
The program’s students then had to come up with a solution, ultimately deciding that building a pedestrian bridge over the tracks would best solve the problem. Students researched and gathered data, conducted interviews and put together a presentation for Mayor Robert Lovero.
On March 13, Lovero was invited to hear the presentation from students at the school. He brought with him Public Works Director Bob Schiller, as an expert to answer the technical questions from students. The officials carefully watched the presentation, treating it with all the seriousness of a Berwyn City Council meeting.
“Your data is very correct,” Lovero told students after their presentation. “Unfortunately education [alone] doesn’t always seem to solve the problem.”
Lovero then turned a question to the students, asking them to think of the associated costs of a pedestrian bridge and how to find the money to build one in Berwyn. Schiller suggested the project would cost $500,000 to $750,000 in his estimation. Lovero then explained possible avenues to securing such funds.
Lovero promised the group he would follow up on correspondence sent by the students to area legislators and promised to follow through on the plan itself.
“But you guy’s [have] to help me,” he urged students.
Villa said after the presentation that she was proud of her participation.
“Some kids like doing problems like this but don’t speak out,” she said.
Classmate Conrad said Our American Voices helped her understand the importance of standing your ground on principle.
“Not a lot of people will take on a big challenge because they think they will just get shot down,” she said.
Rizzo said she prepared her group for the possibility of some resistance to their request.
“It’s very encouraging not to hear a ‘no,’ ” Rizzo said. “They are very determined to keep working on this. They put a lot of time and energy into it.”
Student Mylee Puerta said she agreed and thought she and her classmates could make a difference in their community through the program.
“People who care enough will listen to our voices and we will be heard,” she said.