NEAR NORTH SIDE — The schools on the Near North Side are so different from block to block that students at one school sometimes feel like students at a neighboring school are "living in another country," according to Michele Dreczynski, youth and family committee chaiwoman for the Near North Unity Program.
In an attempt to bring students from different socioeconomic backgrounds together, Dreczynski spearheaded the first-ever Near North Side pen pal program this school year with help from a $1,000 grant from Target.
"People are so divided in this city," she said. "This is one small way to build that bridge of cohesiveness and remind people that we are much more similar than we are different."
About 250 fifth-graders from both private and public schools in the area were paired up. The participating schools were Catherine Cook School, 226 W. Schiller St., George Manierre Elementary School, 1420 N. Hudson Ave., Jenner Elementary Academy of the Arts, 1119 N. Cleveland Ave., Ogden International School, 24 W. Walton St., Ruben Salazar Bilingual Center, 160 W. Wendell St., and Immaculate Conception St. Joseph, 1431 N. North Park Ave.
From November until this month, the students wrote heartfelt letters to their respective pen pals, which were then sealed and hand-delivered by Dreczynski.
Dreczynski estimates the students sent a total of 1,500 letters over the course of the year. Some pairs exchanged as many as five letters, she said.
Though Dreczynski didn't read any of the letters, she said the program was developed so students who might otherwise have never gotten the opportunity to meet could get to know each other and flex their writing muscles at the same time.
"There isn't currently an opportunity for these kids to be connect in a meaningful way," she said, adding that the divide is "more pronounced here than in other communities."
Earlier this week, the program culminated in a pizza party, where all of the students finally got to meet after a year of writing letters to each other. Judging from students' reactions, the program was a huge success, Dreczynski said.
"It was touching how the kids really started conversations with each other and they were so happy to meet each other," she said. "When do you ever get to meet your pen pals? Usually they're long distance."
Dreczynski is an active member of the Near North Unity Program, a neighborhood group that serves the Near North Side. Last year, she won the program's community advocacy award for spearheading conversations on improving the area's schools.
She doesn't want to stop at the Near North Side, though.
"I think this is part of a larger conversation occurring all over the city. We hear a lot of people saying they're disconnected," she said. "This is a way to build human connections in a way that's simple. It doesn't cost a lot of money. It's really effective. It's something schools could do in neighborhoods all around the city."
Two of the area's schools, Ogden and Jenner, made headlines last year for exploring a possible merger. Ogden draws kids from the affluent Gold Coast, while Jenner draws kids from the Cabrini-Green housing projects.
Though the plan didn't come to fruition last year, some school officials and community leaders, including Dreczynski, are still holding out hope for next year.
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