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Intergenerational Learning

Friday, October 8, 2004 at 2:25 PM

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In decades past, generations of families often lived in close quarters. That is no longer the norm, and in recent years, educators and community leaders have tried to make up for this lack of intergenerational contact. You may have seen examples of this - residents from a local nursing home reading to your preschooler's class once a week, or maybe your retired father mentoring at-risk youth. Such programs have been on the rise for 20+ years, and they're becoming more broad-based. ideastream's Cindi Deutschman-Ruiz reports on a Cleveland charter school where intergenerational learning is built into the educational structure.

Ryan: I’m working on estimating numbers and adding them up.

It’s mid-morning at Cleveland’s Intergenerational School, and 11-year-old Ryan is sitting in the hallway, doing math.

Ryan: 87 would round to 90, and 19 would round to 20. So it’s basically 90 take away 20.

Ryan is working math problems alone because he excels at the subject and so gets extra time for it. The Intergenerational School favors an individualized approach to education. This translates into small class sizes (about 16 students per teacher). Kids aren’t classified by grades - first, second, third, and so on. Instead, they’re placed according to developmental level: Emergent (roughly Kindergarten) to Applying (approximately sixth grade). Principal Catherine Whitehouse says grade levels are a twentieth century concept that ignores children’s individuality.

Catherine Whitehouse: And it kind of says, in the car factory you can take the product and do the same thing at each point and get a consistent product at the end, but that’s not how children work

Individualized instruction is a central tenet of the Intergenerational School, but it’s by no means all that makes the school unique, Whitehouse says.

Catherine Whitehouse: We feel that there is great value in dismantling the age-segregated institutions of our society, and schools are one of those institutions.

To that end, this school emphasizes building relationships between people of all ages. It’s established partnerships with area nursing homes, where classes visit and engage in a variety of projects with residents. And each classroom has a designated reading mentor - an older adult volunteer who spends at least a couple of hours a week reading with students.

Reading Mentor: He was really sad, wasn’t he? Okay, now turn the page. Wait a minute, I see a tear. Do you see it? That shows he’s sad.

Whitehouse says reading mentors like this one are taught not simply to read to the kids, but to encourage a love of books. That’s what motivated Marcia Sobol to begin volunteering at the school over two years ago. Sobol is a retired social worker.

Marcia Sobol: At the stage of my life that I was at, I was looking for something that I felt was meaningful to do, and I believe love of reading is something that’s with someone throughout their whole life.

But Sobol is not only at the school to encourage a love of reading, she’s there to be with the students, to be a positive force in their lives. The recognition that this kind of contact needs to be promoted first dawned back in the 1970s, says Sally Newman. She’s a pioneer in the field of intergenerational programming, and is now retired. Academics and community leaders, she says, began noticing children and older adults growing apart. Generations of families were no longer living under the same roof, or in some cases even in the same town. Newman says extensive research in recent decades has proven such programming to be good for kids and elderly people.

Sally Newman: These kinds of interactions do have a positive impact on learning and also what I call psycho-social stability. The flipside for older adults is, being with a generation who needs you and you can really impart stuff to them, really motivates older adults to stay well and stay out of physical deterioration.

Over the years, this intergenerational approach has spread across the country in the form of mentoring and literacy programs, service projects, and the like. Even Cleveland’s Intergenerational School is not the first of its kind. Newman says she ran a similar private school in Pittsburgh in the late 70s. It didn’t survive, she says, because it didn’t have solid, long-term funding. As a charter, the Intergenerational School has guaranteed state support for as long as its charter remains valid - and the school’s recent “excellent” rating on its state Report Card is strong motivation to keep it open. But is state support enough to keep the school going? Catherine Whitehouse says maybe.

Catherine Whitehouse: We had anticipated that at about 100 students we could cover our operating costs with the money we receive from the state. That has not turned out to be quite the case.

Whitehouse says the school will make it another five years at current levels of funding. After that, she says, either the community will step up to boost the budget, or the school will close. But she doesn’t appear too worried. As long as the school performs the way it should, she says, the community will support it. Cindi Deutschman-Ruiz, 90.3.

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