LINCOLN PARK — Donald Trump or not, here they come.
Some 41 seventh- and eighth-grade students from Alcott College Prep's East Elementary campus are preparing to attend next month's inauguration of President-elect Donald Trump. They'll be the only Chicago Public Schools group from a neighborhood school there to see him take office.
The trip has been planned for a while — in fact, almost since social studies teacher Jenny Vincent led 17 Alcott students to Washington, D.C., for President Barack Obama's second inauguration four years ago.
"It was one of the coolest moments of my teaching career," Vincent said last week in the hectic last days before CPS' winter break. "It may actually be the highlight of my teaching career."
A Teachable Moment
The group scored inauguration tickets from U.S. Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Chicago), were invited to the VIP constituent breakfast of U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), met then-Education Secretary Arne Duncan and also got to hear a speech by Dr. Clarence Jones, a confidant of the Rev. Martin Luther King, with the inauguration falling, not coincidentally, on the King holiday in 2013.
"I'm a history buff," Vincent said. "I am a political junkie. And to this day I still have to pinch myself that I was able to give my kids that experience.
"The kids really understood what a special experience it was, as did the community," she added.
"So fast forward, and it's like, 'We're going to take the kids again,' and I was like, 'Okey-dokey artichokey.'"
Last month's election results didn't change that.
"When the election results came out, some of the kids dropped out and other kids dropped on," Vincent said. "Most of our population is disappointed with the results. But I think it's a huge learning opportunity."
It's a lesson, she said, in "how important it is to participate in civics. You can never be too young to start understanding this stuff."
Part of that, she said, is understanding the need for decorum in the peaceful transition of power.
"We've had to have some frank and honest conversation about 'don't engage, it may not be the time to share your opinion on some things,'" Vincent said. "I'm not saying, 'Don't have [opinions].' And the kids get it. I think it was an eye-opening moment for them to understand just how important all of this is and what a gift it is."
This year, Quigley was able to come through again with tickets in a secure area for the actual inauguration, which Vincent said was a priority this time around.
"I feel more relieved, because we're in a safer area, because there's a real air of uncertainty, in part because of the state of things," she added.
Making It Happen
Vincent has been at Alcott East, 2625 N. Orchard St., since she was a student teacher out of DePaul University in 2002. "It's the only school where I've taught," she said.
The school launched a traditional spring trip program for middle school students in 2011, with the first trip in 2012. Soon after, Vincent found out that their trip organizer, EF Explore America, also had a trip available the following year in sync with the inauguration.
"We had started out doing spring break trips, and this just sort of fell in my lap," she added.
When the opportunity presented itself again this year, the school jumped at it. Some students have been paying for it on an installment plan for almost two years.
In between, they made trips to Boston instead.
"A lot of our families go to Washington on their own. This was a little something different," Vincent said. "There's a whole lot of history in Boston."
It's also more walkable and, near Lexington and Concord, Mass., there's also the family home of the school's namesake, Louisa May Alcott. As it turned out, the Orchard House curators there were almost as excited to have students from Alcott School, on Orchard Street, as the students were to visit the house.
Now, however, it's back to Washington for the Trump inauguration. "This is one of the reasons why I'm a teacher — to do this stuff," Vincent said. The students, she added, are "anxious;" for some it's their first trip away from parents. "But once we get there, to watch them figure it out and see how lucky they are to get to do this is so crazy cool."
The students also are invited to an inaugural ball being organized by EF Explore America. "They're all excited," Vincent said. "They have such cute outfits."
The big day is nearing, for the students and for Trump.
"We leave in less than four weeks," Vincent said. "I wish every kid could get to go and do this. I think it would change the game, and people would understand how important it is to participate."
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