Schools not so different after all
Andrea Reynolds clutches a red spiral notebook as her bus pulls up to Danville High School.
The Catlin High School student is both excited and nervous about her first visit to the school, which physically is nearly 7 times the size of hers and has more than 8 times the number of students.
In the days leading up to the visit — the first day of a two-day exchange between 10 Catlin seniors and 10 Danville seniors on Feb. 19 and 20 — she and her classmates wonder whether the rumors they've heard about the bigger school are true: There's a metal detector at the front door. Police officers patrol the hallways. Students get jumped in bathrooms.
Andrea's grandmother tells her she fears for her safety.
But the teen has a much different concern: What will they think of her?
"I'm kind of shy at first," Andrea says. She hopes she and her swap partner hit it off and, perhaps, discover they have something in common.
The Catlin-Danville exchange is the senior service-learning project of 17-year-old Alex Burke and 18-year-old Caleb Cord. Like many of their classmates, both boys have lived in Catlin and attended the small, rural and mostly white school district of 520 students most of their lives.
They based their social experiment on a similar one between students at Catlin and George Henry Corliss High School, a large, mostly black school on Chicago's south side. That exchange took place in 2006 and 2007, and was organized by Josh Miller, a 1998 Catlin graduate and a Corliss social studies teacher, and Phil Cox, who, as the son of Christian missionaries, grew up in South and Central American cities and later taught social studies at Catlin.
As with the Catlin-Corliss exchange, Alex — whose younger sister was adopted from Korea — and Caleb — who spent a month repairing homes and a school in Tanzania last summer — wanted to give their small-town peers a chance to venture beyond their school's walls and experience a larger, more racially diverse school — and give their Danville counterparts a chance to experience their school for a day.
They also wanted to bring students from both schools together to discuss their similarities and differences and find common ground.
Cox believes those types of experiences will help foster tolerance and respect and end prejudice and discrimination.
"The most exciting thing is when they recognize there are more similarities than differences," said Cox, now a Danville High assistant principal and head principal next year. "And when there are differences, they realize they can learn from and appreciate them, and they can be enriched by diversity."
Day 1, Danville High
Inside the Circle Drive entrance, Catlin students don't find a metal detector. They do see a man in a dark blue uniform, as they sign in and get a visitor's badge.
"He lives down the road from me," says Kirstie Nicholson, who relaxes when she notices Officer Doug Weaver, the school's resource officer.
While Kirstie may be the only one in the group who will be a fourth-generation Catlin graduate this spring, many including Caleb, Kirsten Thornsbrough, Kelsey Peterson, Drew Collom and Chase Todd have at least one parent who grew up in Catlin.
The students are greeted by sociology teacher Brian Golish and their Danville hosts, who have been waiting eagerly to meet them and show them around, illustrating what their typical day is like.
Danville seniors Hajira Ahmed and Alexus Jimson whisk Andrea and Kirstie, their swap partners, off to their third-hour class, advanced placement English language and composition, on the opposite end of the building. Soon, Alexus and Kirstie — wearing nearly identical outfits (gray tops, skinny blue jeans and short boots) — head to the library so Alexus can print out her comparison-contrast essay for a classmate to proofread.
"I'm already lost," says Chase as he follows the girls down a flight of stairs, through a maze of hallways, up another flight of stairs and down a corridor into the library. Though technically not part of the swap, he's along to videotape it for his project.
On the way back, Alexus makes a detour to show her guests the dance studio.
Inside, the sound of "Jump Jive An' Wail" fills the room, and physical education teacher Debi Hosch demonstrates swing dance moves to nine pairs of students. Kirstie giggles when she sees classmate Autumn Watson dancing in mismatched socks with her swap partner, Quiana Strickland.
The bell rings, and the halls look like a mob scene to the Catlin students.
Kelsey can barely hear her swap partner, Courtney Crisp, over the noise. So Courtney and a friend steer her through the crush of students downstairs to her wind ensemble class in the band room.
The Catlin students are surprised to learn Danville has several bands, two show choirs and many other clubs and activities that their school doesn't have. In addition to the dance studio, field house, natatorium and large and small auditoriums, the school also has four small learning communities — Freshman, New Tech, GLOBAL and ACE houses — a new Junior ROTC program, advanced placement courses and a wide range of electives including Mandarin Chinese, sports/entertainment marketing and photography.
Next hour in sociology, teacher Golish has students discuss similarities and differences between the two schools.
"Diversity," Caleb of Catlin says, pointing out a major difference. And his school doesn't offer advanced placement classes. He hopes that doesn't put him at a disadvantage in college.
"Do you sag your pants?" asks Danville's Hajira, who is eating a container of yogurt.
Caleb — who prefers shorts and is wearing them today — shakes his head no.
Danville senior Dallas Robinson raises a brow quizzically. "I thought that was universal."
"Do you have cops at your school?" Caleb asks his swap partner, Clay Calamari.
"We have one," Clay replies.
"We have one cop in our whole town," Caleb says of Catlin, a village of about 2,000 people.
When the class ends, Danville senior Martez Davis shows Alex, his Catlin swap partner, to the basement cafeteria. He eats during the first of three lunch periods, something else that surprises the Catlin kids. Their school has one lunch period, and the entire student body doesn't even fill up the lunchroom.
The cafeteria smells like French fries, but students can select fare from the lunch line, an a la carte line, a Subway counter or the vending machines. Martez and Alex each grab a Pizza Stix and a bag of chips. Then Martez — a 6-foot-3-inch-tall basketball player, dressed in a Vikings basketball sweatshirt and matching warm-up pants, cubic zirconia studs in his ears — swaggers toward the center of the dining hall.
"I have my own table," he tells Alex.
The two have already connected through sports. Martez also plays football and runs track, and Alex is a soccer standout.
As they eat, Martez tells Alex that he and his friends write rap songs. It's their turn to be intrigued when Alex tells them it's FFA Week at Catlin, and Friday is Drive Your Tractor to School Day.
"When do I get to do this project?" asks Montrell Smith, Martez's friend.
When lunch is over, Danville seniors Lynette Buggs and Manuel Torres and their swap partners, Jenna Bryant and Clayton Fauver, are back in speech class. Students listen to songs with offensive lyrics, including "Cop Killer."
After discussing the song's historical context, student teacher Alan Newman poses a question: Is it OK to air a song like that?
Jenna, who is white, is interested when several African-American students, including Lynette, argue yes. The rapper was expressing his feelings about police brutality, and people are entitled to free speech.
"It opens your mind to other opinions," says Jenna, who wonders how the discussion might play in Catlin.
By the end of the day, Catlin students are exhausted from all they have taken in and running around the massive, three-story building. After saying goodbye to their new friends, they board the bus to go back home.
Jenna assesses the day. "I think we were all nervous for nothing."
Day 2, Catlin High
The next morning, it's Danville students' turn to feel anxious about their visit to Catlin. While the Catlin students blended in with Danville's 1,496 students, they realize they — some more than others — will stand out at the small, close-knit school.
Catlin students also have a reputation: They're spoiled, stuck-up white kids.
Sure, the ones they met yesterday didn't fit the stereotype. But will the others look down on them or think they're "ghetto?"
"I just don't know what to expect," frets Parker Arnholt, who usually doesn't like to go outside of his comfort zone.
Parker, Alexus and Clay's families are deeply rooted in Danville. However, some in their group are first-generation Americans. Hajira's parents came from India, and Manuel's came from Mexico.
Martez, Courtney, Quiana and Dallas all were born out-of-state and moved to Danville at different ages. Lynette was born and raised in Chicago and moved to Danville in the seventh grade. Danville High seems small compared to her old school.
Their fears subside when Principal Kevin Thomas boards their bus and extends a warm welcome, and they see their swap partners waiting for them at the main entrance.
Once inside, Lynette is stunned when Jenna guides her down a short hallway to her locker. First, everyone's locker is on the same floor. And second, many are not only unlocked but open. Salt Fork Storm letterman jackets hang on some of the doors.
At her school, you don't leave lockers unlocked or anything you value laying around.
The first bell rings, and Thomas' voice comes over the intercom. He makes some announcements, including about the day's lunch menu — glazed-ham-and-cheese sandwiches and carrots.
Then students rise and recite the Pledge of Allegiance, something Danville students haven't done since middle school.
In first-hour English class, student teacher Kaitlyn Henaghan divides the class into two groups for a debate. Coincidentally, the topic is music with offensive lyrics — the same topic that was discussed in yesterday's speech class in Danville.
In a separate building, Alex, Clayton and Drew of Catlin dress for PE. They think they will crush an opposing team in a game of four square volleyball when Danville's Martez, Manuel and Parker join them on the court. But they lose 4 to 3.
"That was just our warm-up game," Clayton says, as the group heads up to the bleachers.
Next period, Kirsten and Dallas, Andrea and Hajira, and Kirstie and Alexus head upstairs to one of four classrooms on the third floor of Catlin High. Dianna McBride teaches parenting and foods and nutrition classes in the spacious room, which includes four kitchen stations.
Danville cut home economics courses several years ago to provide more time for reading and math instruction. But some Danville visitors think it would be nice to bring them back since most will need those skills eventually.
Several swap pairs have Lezlie Holman's speech class later in the morning. Student teacher Austin Maske makes Catlin and Danville kids alike draw a slip of paper from a jar. Then they must stand at a podium and deliver an impromptu speech on a topic or convey an expression that's written on their paper.
It's 45 minutes of stand-up routines, charades and laughs. But it gives students public-speaking experience and brings more Danville students out of their shells to reveal what they're like back on their home turf.
"We're never going to get invited back," Danville teacher Golish mock laments from the back of the room, after Courtney's speech on carnies.
"They fit right in," Maske quips.
Down another hallway, Spanish 4 students arrange their desks in a circle. Teacher Tara Clem instructs everyone to introduce themselves in English and Spanish.
"My English name is Manuel. My Spanish name is Manuel," Manuel deadpans. The room fills with laughter.
Then Clem breaks from the lesson to let students do what they've been dying to do all morning — visit the farm animal petting zoo set up in the weight room for FFA Week. There are chicks, baby goats and pigs, and a long-haired guinea pig.
"Mr. Golish, can I take this home with me?" Dallas pleads, cradling a tiny, brown goat. She wants to be a veterinarian.
Outside in the bus barn, Alexus snaps a picture of herself in front of horse named Tank. She texts it to a classmate, who had hoped to be chosen for the exchange.
In the cafeteria, students pick at their ham sandwiches.
"I told you to bring a lunch," Jenna tells the Danville students.
Those who sit in on the foods and nutrition class later that afternoon are in luck. The class is learning how to make sweet muffins. At the end of the lesson, students can eat their assignment.
Manuel and Parker of Danville snicker as Catlin's Clayton and Drew struggle to measure the wet and dry ingredients and mix them together in a bowl.
"Don't overstir," teacher McBride cautions. She doesn't want the gluten to overdevelop, causing the muffins to become tough.
"I think we messed up," Clayton says, staring down at his dry, lumpy batter.
When the muffins come out of the oven, Manuel eats one. He thinks the guys deserve an A.
During the last hour, students meet in the basement library for a wrap-up session.
They re-examine the similarities and differences between their schools and towns, and see advantages and disadvantages on both sides. Danville has more diversity, classes and activities. Catlin seems more laid back and has fewer, if any, fights.
"I like the small classes. You don't have to do a lot to get the teacher's attention," Danville's Quiana brings up. She asks if she can come back the next day.
Both schools have cliques, students acknowledge. But that's not necessarily a bad thing.
"It's OK to feel like you belong to a group as long as you branch out and talk to other people," Hajira points out.
They also talk about their preconceived notions and fears and whether they're real.
"I thought Danville would be scarier," Autumn admits. "I thought I was going to get shut out right away. (But) people talked to me."
"I thought I wouldn't meet many friends here because I'm black. They treated me like any other human being," Martez adds.
Some of the Catlin kids plan to hang out with him and his friends in Danville.
Students decide that spending time with each other and having one-on-one conversations helped break down stereotypes they might have had, even subconsciously. They hope they won't be so quick to judge in the future.
Despite their differences, they add, they discovered they're all pretty much typical teens. They like the same music, interests, hanging out with friends, and they can't wait to graduate from high school and get on with their lives.
They face the same challenges including peer pressure and, in some cases, parents' divorce or job loss. They share the same goals: going to college, getting a good job and raising a family in a safe neighborhood.
"We all want the same thing — happiness," Danville's Courtney says.
Golish pulls the Danville bus up to the door. Students want to linger, but it's time to go.
Before they do, they take a group picture on the stairs and exchange cellphone numbers.
"I'll find you on Twitter," Courtney yells to Catlin's Kelsey, as the Danville students head out the door.
On the short ride home, students talk about their day. It was a great experience, they agree. They hope the exchange continues in the future. The only thing they would change is the length.
"Let's do a whole week," Martez says.
Comparing the schools
Catlin Community Unit School District 5
Racial, economic makeup:
White: 96.8 percent.
Black: 0.2 percent.
Hispanic: 0.4 percent.
Asian: 2.1 percent.
Multiracial: 0.6 percent.
Low income: 19.7 percent.
District enrollment: 530
High school enrollment: 169
Senior class enrollment: 44
Danville School District 118
Racial, economic makeup:
White: 45 percent.
Black: 40 percent.
Hispanic: 8 percent.
Asian: 1 percent.
Multiracial: 6 percent.
Low income: 77 percent.
District enrollment: 6,126
High school enrollment: 1,496
Senior class enrollment: 331
Sources: Catlin and Danville school districts