The Intergenerational School: Connecting Generations, Building Relationships

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NAPCS is using the Charter Blog to feature public charter schools that prepare students for college using a range of instructional strategies. NAPCS asked school leaders to tell us in their own words how they use different instructional methods to create a “college-prep” focus. By combining data on instructional strategies from a national survey with on the ground stories of the work of charter schools, NAPCS wants to show the scope of possibilities in how charter schools can provide great learning environments for students.

The mission of The Intergenerational School (TIS) is to connect, create and guide a multi-generational community of lifelong learners and spirited citizens. To teach and live out the concepts of lifelong learning and spirited citizenship, we surround our young students with opportunities to engage with the broader community and to learn with and from individuals of all ages who exemplify this ideal. TIS is located in Cleveland, Ohio, one of the poorest cities in the nation. Over the 12 years that TIS has been operating, we have developed the intergenerational learning model from a seed of an idea into a vibrant and successful school with not only 224 “young” learners (grades K-8) but approximately 300 adults and older adults who participate in a wide range of intergenerational programs each year.

A “walk through” at TIS demonstrates the ways in which we operationalize this mission. Walking into one primary classroom, it is reading workshop. Students are scattered throughout the room; some are engrossed in reading his or her own self-selected book, others are reading with a partner, a few are working with the teacher. Looking more closely, you will see that the class includes students of a variety of ages and some of the older students are reading with and helping some of the younger students. This is the first step toward instilling an inclination of “community service” in the children: if you know how to do something and someone younger does not, you have the opportunity to teach what you know. Hence at TIS a fundamental belief is that everyone is at once a teacher and a learner at all times.

Meanwhile in the hallway, ensconced in comfortable sofas and chairs are some of our oldest participants, senior citizens who have been trained to mentor our young readers. Together one elder and one child explore the wonderful world of books, which prompts discussion and the sharing of life stories between the two. Over the course of weeks, months, and even years, the elders notice the growth of their mentees as readers, and as poised and thoughtful partners in increasingly rich conversations. Further on, area college students are tutoring math students and developing relationships that will inspire TIS students to see college as a part of their own future.

Yet another class is preparing to leave to visit their nursing home partners. That day they will be deepening their own understanding of the civil rights movement by collecting the stories of those residents who were a part of it. These stories will be rewritten into picture book format to be shared with their primary cluster reading partners later on.

These are just a few examples of intergenerational learning activities that take place on a daily basis. Intergenerational experiences not only deepen and personalize learning, but have spillover effects on overall school culture and outcomes. From the academic perspective, TIS students consistently post some of the highest test scores in the state of Ohio. The school has had 6 years of Excellent ratings, and 2 years of achieving Excellent with Distinction status out of 9 years of being rated. But test scores do not tell the full story. TIS students develop a profound respect for their elders and benefit from the patience, caring, and consistency that characterize these relationships. The come to value people of all ages and from all walks of life. The presence of older adults contributes to a calm and respectful school climate. Meanwhile the older adults, including some with memory loss, know that they are making a profound contribution to the next generation and leaving a true living legacy.

We have coined the term “intergenerativity” to denote the powerful synergy that emerges when the generations learn together. To us, this represents community service at its most profound and personal level.

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Cathy Whitehouse, Founder, Principal and Chief-Educator, The Intergenerational School

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