Here’s a story about a class of Oak Park’s Lincoln School fourth graders who, when their wheelchair-bound classmate couldn’t join their field trip, launched a well-researched campaign to make a historic site accessible for people with disabilities. Now in fifth grade, this class just presented their plans, models and cost analysis to the board of the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County on April 15…to rave reviews!

Last October, students from Ms. Kathleen Priceman’s fourth grade Spanish Immersion class at Lincoln School were inspired by a classmate who chose not to attend a field trip to Graue Mill Museum in DuPage County because he wouldn’t be able to get upstairs with his classmates. Upset and motivated into action, the class began by bringing in money to pay for an elevator. Ms. Priceman told them they needed instead to start with a plan.

The class decided to solicit the help of Mark Klancic, an Oak Park architect they had worked with as third graders in the Oak Park Education Foundation’s Architecture Adventure program. Mr. Klancic and Matt Kuntz, Lincoln’s Gifted, Talented and Differentiation teacher, helped students design options to ensure that everyone could enjoy the museum.

The students spent seven months using Sketch-Up, Google Earth, cardboard, X-Acto knives and markers to make design models. They were supported in their efforts by their friend Kris Lenzo, whom they had met when he served as their Art Start artist (the Oak Park Education Foundation’s visiting artists program) when they were first graders. Mr. Lenzo, who had taught them dance and also uses a wheelchair, shared stories of his efforts to overcome adversity and how he helped make an Oak Park building wheelchair accessible.

In addition to creating the models, the students generated awareness about the importance of providing accessibility for all by producing a three-act play depicting the disappointment they felt when they learned their classmate wasn’t attending the field trip because he could not participate in all of the activities.

After the students completed their plans to alter the museum in a way that would maintain the integrity of the structure while making it ADA compliant, they sent letters to the members of Graue Mill’s board of directors inviting them to visit their blog and view their work. Their plans were informed by what they had researched about the Graue Mill’s mission statement and previous renovations to the site.

The last week of September, 2012, Andrea Hoyt, director of planning for the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, contacted the students to applaud their efforts to upgrade Graue Mill and invite them to work on the plan to convert the Ben Fuller Farmhouse into an education center. The students will have the opportunity to participate in various aspects of the renovation project, including the selection of the architect, development of the design, creation of the construction drawings, completion of the bid process and construction. They met with Ms. Hoyt and her team, including a landscape architect and civil engineer, who visited Lincoln School on October 24. The team thanked the kids for doing the legwork (including designs and cost estimates) for the Graue Mill project, and invited them to pitch their recommendations at a Forest Preserve board meeting this spring.

The 15-minute presentation on April 15 was top notch, and the DuPage County Forest Preserve Board was clearly impressed. The students had prepared a PowerPoint, poster and handouts. Each student had the opportunity to step to the mic and say a few lines. One board member had a question and the kids handled the question with aplomb.

After the presentation, the Board President said, “I’ve been here since 1992 and by far this has been the most productive and inspirational presentation that I’ve had the honor of observing…This is an inspiration to this board, letting us know what we do here and who we really want to serve is the people that made this presentation.”

Several key people from both the Forest Preserve and Graue Mill exchanged emails and business cards with Ms. Priceman. They all expressed interest in continuing to discuss and explore doing this project.

The Oak Park Education Foundation is so proud to be part of this effort, particularly when Ms. Priceman told us, “This shows how powerful the work of the Ed Foundation is. OPEF is part of who they are and how they think. Thanks again for being so supportive. Giving voice to these students is life changing.”