HARVARD – Each morning, high school junior Zach Jeppsen witnesses the slow upraising of his flat Wisconsin farm home to the spired Chicago skyline.
At 4:45 a.m., Jeppsen, 17, wakes up in Whitewater, Wisconsin, but by 8 a.m., he is an accomplished student dancer and master of Chicago’s transportation system.
The teen studies dance at the Chicago Academy for the Arts, where he is particularly interested in the program’s ballet lessons.
Jeppsen spends 36 hours a week commuting to and from school – give or take six hours, depending on additional after-school work and weekend rehearsals.
“I see the whole shift from trees to houses to skyscrapers,” Jeppsen said.
Most days of the week, Jeppsen is out the door by 5:30 a.m. and en route with his parents to the Harvard Metra station, where they’ll wait about 10 minutes. Once his train leaves at 6:22 a.m., it’s a two-hour ride to the Ogilvie Transportation Center in Chicago and the beginning of his school day.
“I’ve never gotten off, and I’ve never really experienced what all the stops in between are like,” Jeppsen said.
But the hours-long trip through Chicago’s northwest suburbs isn’t lost time.
If he’s not doing homework on the train, Jeppsen is catching up on lost sleep, and all the while he’s putting in time toward the dance career he almost always has dreamed of, said his mother, Tracey Hall.
“When he was 2 and 3, people would come over and he’d ask people if they wanted to see him dance,” Hall said. “He’s been dancing since he was 5.”
At the beginning of each month, Jeppsen’s family buys a new monthly Metra pass at a reduced student fare. Discounted monthly passes from Harvard to the Ogilvie Transportation Center can cost $184, according to Metra’s website.
About 50 percent of the academy’s students come from outside Chicago, but Jeppsen’s commute is by far the longest, said Tim Butler, the school’s director of communications.
Aside from the school’s specialized
focus on the arts, the Chicago Academy for the Arts provides Jeppsen an otherwise “normal” high school education. The first half of the students’ day is dedicated to regular classes, while the remainder of the day is spent in their respective disciplines, Butler said.
“They’re getting 20 hours a week of dance,” Butler said. “The kids are really inspiring in a way that they don’t have a lot of free time, and they are truly dedicated to their art.”
Free time isn’t something Jeppsen knows a lot about. By the time he arrives back in Whitewater about 9 p.m., his regular duties on the family’s 11-acre farm take precedence.
By 10 p.m., once the goats are fed and his 2-month-old husky puppy, Skye, is tuckered out, Jeppsen will rest up to do it all again.
“I love living in the country. I think it’s amazing,” Jeppsen said. “I know especially when I was younger I was like, ‘I’m going to live in the same area and the same house forever.’ I think now I would choose to live in the city.”
Jeppsen’s plans for the future aren’t set in stone, but for now, his sights are set on a spot with the Joffrey Ballet – an aspiration he said the Chicago Academy for the Arts helps him work toward each day.
“It feels so amazing to be here that the commute almost feels like nothing,” Jeppsen said.