It's not often that kids at public schools in the Bronx get the chance to go on a field trip to a remote Swedish-speaking island in the Baltic Sea.
But the fifth- and sixth-grade students who make up the Gospel Chorus at Public School 86 in the Bronx were lucky: their choir teacher Johanna Grussner is a native of the Aland Islands and wanted her students to meet her family and see where she grew up.
The Aland Islands are an archipelago of 6,500 islands in the Gulf of Bothnia, between Sweden and Finland. Just 65 of the islands are inhabited, with a total population of 25,000. The islands are now a province of Finland, although they were historically part of Sweden and most of the islanders speak Swedish.
Curious About the Islands
Grussner, 28, came to the United States eight years ago to study music. Her arrival at the Bronx school three and a half years ago generated a lot of interest in the remote islands.
"We wanted to know where Aland was from the first week that she was in the school," says Sheldon Benardo, the principal.
Grussner came up with the idea of a trip as a way of showing her students — many of whom had never been out of New York — another part of the world.
But she had another motivation: to show the children in Aland how the Bronx kids could sing.
The 24 P.S. 86 students chosen for the trip are all members of the Gospel Chorus.
"The chorus started about a year ago," says Grussner. "About two-thirds of these kids have behavioral problems in the classrooms and don't necessarily have very high test scores. I picked them purely upon their voice."
When Grussner and Principal Benardo managed to raise money to make the trip possible, the children were ecstatic.
Buildings and Trees
After a 3,700-mile plane trip from New York — the first plane trip for many of the kids — the P.S. 86 group reached Mariehamn, the Aland capital.
At the Polsbale school — which Grussner had attended as a girl — the Bronx students finally met some of their penpals. For several months before the trip, they had been communicating by sending faxes from the fax machine in Grussner's bedroom in New York.
Finally meeting each other in the flesh, the children continued their exploration of their similarities — and their differences. They agreed that the remote islands are very different from the Bronx.
"It's too quiet around here. I need more noise," said Kimberly, one of the Bronx students.
Her classmate Lecia noted that when it gets dark, it gets really dark. "In New York when you turn off the light, it's still bright," she said.
The P.S. 86 students tried to describe the Bronx for the Aland kids. One of them, Lissette, summed it up by saying: "We're pretty much made up of buildings."
Her new friend Nina paused a while, then said of Aland, "We have many trees."
The highlight of the trip was a joint concert, with the P.S. 86 chorus singing alongside the Aland school's gospel choir, Intermezzo.
An earlier concert was followed by dancing. The Bronx kids were at first shy about the "heel-toe, heel-toe" of the Aland polka — could it possibly be cool? — but they got into it…for a while. The polka soon gave way to hip-hop, Aland kids and Bronx kids waving their hands in the air, like they just don't care.
ABCNEWS' Nick Watt contributed to this report.