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Different worlds
Pecatonica senior Rachel Brokish and Lake View sophomore Christopher Williams write issues like gun reform and gender inequality on the board, rating which are the most relevant to their lives at Pecatonica High School April 25. A group of students from Lake View High School, on the north side of Chicago, spent the day in Blanchardville as part of a social justice exchange program. When talking about their likes and dislikes, Brokish said she dislikes inequality in every form. (Times photos: Marissa Weiher)
BLANCHARDVILLE - When students at Pecatonica High School and those at Lake View High School on the north side of Chicago walk into their respective school buildings each morning, a number of the things they encounter are the same.

They pass fellow students, stopping at their lockers to organize the day ahead, likely seeking out close friends to spend time with before heading to class. But even that small act comes with similarities and vast differences, something the students found out after spending the day together Wednesday.

Lake View sophomore Krystal Geban, 16, has lived in Chicago since she was 7 years old. Though she is familiar with rural areas after spending her early years in Belize City, Belize, near the ocean in Central America, Geban said some things about Pecatonica still caught her off guard.

"The one thing that was surprising for me was the class size is very, very small," Geban said, adding her class enrollment at Lake View is over 300. "In our school, depending on who you are ... you either know a lot of people or you don't know a lot of people. It's so refreshing to see everyone's very close-knit. I think it's a good thing to be close to the people you're at school with because you develop relationships."

The outreach program between the two schools was established in early 2017, following a particularly divided electorate in the 2016 presidential election. Members of the Lake View High School Social Justice Club created the exchange called "Facing the Divide" as a way to bridge a gap between seemingly different worlds.

Students spent the day touring Blanchardville and talking about respective community issues. Pecatonica senior Rachel Brokish found students shared the problem of poverty, as expected, but did not think the students would agree on mental health instability and drug abuse.

"I didn't realize both of us would face those kind of issues on a daily basis until we addressed them," Brokish said, referring to each group's ranking of provided topics like discrimination or gun violence. "There's a lot of issues that we share and a lot of issues that we don't share, and it's not necessarily the ones I thought they would be."

Pecatonica and Lake View students shared a high concern over sex and gender discrimination, poverty, drug-related and mental health issues, as well as feeling like they struggled to be treated fairly at school. As more than two dozen students and their teachers took turns around the room introducing themselves by including a thing they like and something they hate, they bonded over mutual dislike of large groups and intolerance. At the same time, students shared an affinity for pets, sports, playing instruments and favorite foods.

While they shared concerns, there were still stark differences.

The group of students from Lake View, made up of a majority of Hispanic, African-American and Asian "ambassadors," noted racial discrimination was a primary concern in their school, as well as immigration, violence, gun violence and gang activity. Pecatonica students, overwhelmingly white, noted single-parent homes, cellphone addiction, adolescent sexual activity, alcohol addiction, drunken driving and social networking pressure as their highest concerns. When discussing this after the two groups joined, students from Lake View told teachers that cellphones and social networks may be a concern but the others took precedent.

As they toured the village of fewer than 1,000 people, Lake View students met community members while taking time to fish, touring the town and catching a glimpse of a farm through a visit to a petting zoo.

Students from Pecatonica will visit Chicago this week as a part of the exchange, now in its second year, allowing those from Blanchardville to take part in the world of Lake View students.

"It was an insightful experience for sure," Geban said. "Everyone's super polite, everyone wanted to tell you more about what's going on. I just think it's a really cool place. It's very calm and reserved."

Lake View senior Eve Schakowsky, 18, and senior classmate Miguel Agyei said they had shared a different expectation than the reality of the rural, Republican-dominant Lafayette County.

"People think you're all racist, white kids, but that's not the case," Agyei said.

Schakowsky added that the students had spoken on the bus about what they might see or experience during their trip, noting that they had wondered whether they would see Confederate flags. Sitting at a table together, Brokish told the story of a Pecatonica student who was recently suspended for bringing Confederate flag attire to school.

"I like the action at this school," Agyei said with a smile, eliciting laughter from the others. "I want to see this in my school."

The students from the north side of Chicago were also put off by the security Pecatonica students felt in leaving bags on the floor or cellphones unattended.

"No one locks their lockers; that was so surprising to me," Schakowsky said. "If you leave your stuff (at Lake View), it's going to get stolen in two minutes."

Pecatonica students said they had heard similar comments, from unlocked bikes in racks outside to phones sitting against a wall untouched.

"It's like a community vibe over here," Agyei said.