ALBANY PARK — A neighborhood elementary school has a message for the city's top schools: Watch out when it comes to science.
That's because against all odds, Volta Elementary in Albany Park is headed to the 2015 Illinois Science Olympiad state championship competition at the University of Illinois this weekend — joining a roster that includes many of the city's gifted, selective-enrollment and magnet schools, as well as schools from many more affluent suburbs.
Volta students are "anyone who lives in this attendance area, so it’s very exciting to let my community members know: Look at what you have in your neighborhood," said Principal Roger Johnson. "You don’t have to take a selective enrollment test, you can have your kids right in the neighborhood school and get a first-class education.”
The Albany Park K-8 elementary school, at 4950 N. Avers Ave., is home to the Volta Thunderbolts — where 96 percent of students come from low-income families. More than 90 percent of the school's 1,000 students come from minority groups.
Yet that didn't stop teachers and students from forming a Science Olympiad club, an extracurricular opportunity for sixth- to eighth-grade students to compete in science, problem solving and critical thinking.
The academic-year-long club culminates in an annual championship, where teams from each school compete multiple rounds with hopes of qualifying for a spot in the state finals. Though many teams compete, only five teams from each region advance.
Teams, groups and individuals compete in categories like entomology, simple machines, bottle rocket anatomy, robotics, disease detectives, solar systems and more.
“They’re just amazing,” Dzevida Duheric, the Science Olympiad coach and a science teacher at Volta, said of his students. “Hard-working, committed. I told them, you don’t have to be labeled in order to prove how intelligent, incredible and smart you are. They definitely can prove it for themselves.”
This year Volta did just that by taking home over 50 medals and awards from regionals, as well as placing second — right behind Lane Tech's academic center, a selective enrollment program that draws the top-scoring kids in the city.
Volta bested the academic center at Whitney Young and magnet school LaSalle II Elementary, as well as Edison Elementary School, a pipeline to Edison's gifted high school program, to earn a second-place spot.
“In the end is when it really hit home to me,” Johnson said. “That these were the schools that we came out on top of.”
Ultimately, members of the 27-student-led team, which also included English language learners and students with learning disabilities, said they learned lifelong lessons in addition to the final outcome.
“I think it tells people that just because you’re a magnet elementary school doesn’t mean you’re better than regular elementary schools," said Jennifer Calderone, a 13-year-old seventh grader at Volta. "[Other schools] couldn’t believe that Volta beat them by four places.”
Calderone's teammate, eighth-grader Raymond Diaz, agreed, saying he hopes the showing quells any notion that "public schools are any less than private schools."
The 2013-2014 academic year was the first time Volta adopted the Science Olympiad club, based on a suggestion and eventual partnership with science teachers at New Trier High School in Winnetka.
Last year Volta surprised themselves and others when they placed sixth in the regional competition, only two points behind the fifth-place team.
Now, they said the previous year's near-miss inspired them more than ever to take home more trophies and put more hours in studying.
“My parents were shocked,” Patino said. “They saw me study really hard, and they felt like, ‘Wow, this actually made a difference.’ It also shows with hard work and dedication anything is possible.”
Johnson said the students' accomplishments so far have provided a much-needed boost of confidence not only among the student body and faculty, but parents as well. He said parents who feared their child "might not ever succeed" now have a hope instilled in them that, in fact, their children can accomplish anything.
However, Calderone and other students said some parents at the regional competition were skeptical of Volta's high placement, and expressed skepticism.
“Some parents [from other schools] weren’t happy, they wanted to investigate how we beat their school,” Calderone said.
Still, Volta's Olympiad team marches on. They said their experience on the science team has made them feel like their life goals — including being lawyers, doctors, marine biologists and more — are within reach.
“This is huge, this is very big,” Johnson said. “I have a feeling [the club] will be much bigger next year.”
Friday morning the team boards the bus for the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, but not before passing out maps of the campus first.
"My biggest fear is getting lost," Patino laughed, as other students giggled and agreed.
And other students from Volta will be there, proudly waving and cheering them on with banners they've made for their upperclassmen heroes.
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