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Downers Grove students at Lester learn to navigate funding, government for improvement project

DOWNERS GROVE – A group of fifth graders at Lester Elementary School are spending some of their lunch periods learning about civic engagement through a year-long project designed and executed by the students that will benefit one of their own.

The goal is to modify stairs at Herrick Middle School to make them easier to navigate for someone with poor vision, like Lester student Margaret Dahle, who will attend the school next year..

"I'm happy it's happening. There’s so many stairs, and they’re not marked," said Dahle, who has ectopia lentis syndrome, an inherited lens dislocation of the eye that causes limited depth perception.“I think that it will make Herrick easier to get used to. That will take one worry off me.”

She's one of 12 students at Lester learning firsthand shape an idea through government interaction through the statewide organization Our American Voice. The program aims to give students real-life opportunities to make a positive impact beyond the classroom walls and provides stipends and supports to teachers.

"The students are the true leaders of the project," said Ben Cutler of Serafin & Associates, who works with the nonprofit. "They came up with the initial idea, researched and priced different options, created a budget and are handling all communication."

Teacher Doreen Arlow jumped at the chance to bring the program to Lester School and said she got the same response from about half her class when she asked students to sign up. She said the semi-weekly meetings kicked off in the fall with brainstorming problems in the school district or community that needed solving.

Student Jackson Sheets, 11, said the group had more than 20 ideas, including adding solar panels to street lights.

"We took a poll, and some ideas seemed too hard or expensive," he said.

Arlow said the group pursued the top three proposals: increasing signage at the corner of Highland and Chicago avenues, creating a bike lane along the route that students ride to school and the stair project.

As the kids researched their top ideas, they learned some tough lessons about bureaucratic red tape – the sign issue was already being addressed and never heard back from public officials about the bike plan.

"You don’t get taught about failure in history [class]," said 11-year-old Joe Leckie.

The students persisted and got a positive response after sending a letter to Herrick principal Matt Neustadt about their safety steps idea, explaining how it would draw attention to the edge of each stair and provide assistance to more people than just their vision-impaired classmate, such as elderly attendees of special events.

Arlow said Neustadt met with the kids during one of their lunch period sessions and asked them to come up with the cost. The kids researched solutions and found several options, but prices have gone beyond what they expected.

"I didn’t think it would happen,after we learned the price,” said 11-year-old David D'Amico. "I thought it would be like $1,000. It was a lot more, like $6,000” for materials alone, he said.

Arlow said the students met with the Herrick principal again on April 26 to present back-up plans if he can’t come up with the funds in his budget for the four main staircases.

"We might just do one stairway," suggested D'Amico. "I thought one of our parents could do it,”offered 10-year-old Tatum Ringbloom.

The students are now explaining their process in a video, which will be posted at as a way to share their vision of how to turn a community idea into a reality.

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