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Log in to Witsby: ASCD’s Next-Generation Professional Learning and Credentialing Platform
April 1, 1996
Vol. 53
No. 7

Building Bridges Between Generations

In suburban Cook County, an Illinois school district has tapped an invaluable community resource—senior citizens—for the mutual enrichment and education of two generations.

Children ought to know what went into their making, to know that life is a braided cord of humanity stretching up from time long ago.—Russell Baker
I was a fortunate child. Growing up, I was surrounded by the love and attention of my parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles. They shared their knowledge and life experiences. As a child, I took my family for granted. Looking back, however, I now appreciate their positive and lasting influence on me—especially when I see so many children who lack the support and frame of reference only a family can provide.
Today, families are increasingly likely to be geographically dispersed, denying kids a close relationship with their grandparents or other members of the extended family. Divorce and the resulting single-parent families also contribute significantly to family isolation. Many children are growing up with only minimal exposure to other generations.
But the kids and their needs are just one part of this equation. The other piece is the older individuals in our community, a group that is often isolated, too. Sometimes as people age, they find fewer outlets to make a positive contribution to society. Formerly vibrant, vital people may be shuffled aside, forced to play less active roles in the world around them. They may suffer from a serious loss of self worth. Loneliness and depression may begin to take their toll in physical or mental illnesses. Yet seniors are a tremendous community resource—willing and eager, knowledgeable, interested and interesting.

Common Ground

Several years ago, Community Consolidated School District 15, which serves 12,000 students in seven suburbs in and around Palatine, Illinois, began a concerted effort to reach out to seniors. Although we had a strong school volunteer program that involved many seniors, we decided to target them more directly.
At the invitation of the Intergenerational Initiative of Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, one of our elementary schools hosted a roundtable in which students and seniors shared their feelings about their life needs. The discussion showed that the two groups have many things in common: loneliness, the constant need for reassurance ("Will I be liked?"), and the fear of failure in their relationships. These findings, which became part of the final report of the White House Conference on Aging, strengthened our commitment to build bridges between schoolchildren and seniors. What better catalyst than the schools?

Senior Exchange

In 1992, we launched one of our two ongoing seniors programs—Senior Exchange. The first such program in Illinois, Senior Exchange gives residents age 55 and over an opportunity to help the schools while also earning money to pay the portion of their property tax bill that supports District 15. The program theme is "Building Our Future Together."
Participating seniors assist in many ways in our district's 19 elementary and junior high schools. They work in computer labs, resource centers, lunchrooms, school offices, and classrooms. They help students with reading, writing, or math. We make every effort to match the senior's work preference with the school's needs.
Participants are paid an hourly rate based on the minimum wage. The total wage each may earn is tied to that person's School District 15 portion of the property tax bill (an average amount is calculated for those who live in apartments or with family members). They receive a free medical check-up.
To apply, residents must complete an employment verification form, a criminal background check, state and federal W-4 forms, and a child abuse/neglect reporting form. They must also have a negative tuberculosis test. Program coordinator Dorothy Roxworthy ("66 and proud of it"), serves as a mentor and trainer.
We encourage participants to continue as volunteers after their wages have equaled the school district's portion of their taxes—and four out of five choose to do so. After three years in the program and 60 hours of training, participants are eligible for the district's computer acquisition program, which allows them to buy a computer at a greatly reduced price.
At any given time, the district has an average of 50 Senior Exchange participants. They have included retired corporate executives, former blue collar workers, homemakers whose families are grown—anyone interested in enriching his or her own life by reaching out to our children. Their ages have ranged from 55 to 91. More than one participant has told us that the opportunity to contribute has "saved my life." One woman, who had lost several family members in quick succession, said the program gave her "a reason to get out of bed."
Teachers also have responded positively. As one teacher put it, "We'll take all the seniors we can get." A teachers' union official initially voiced some concern about the program, but we stressed that participants would not take the place of certificated teachers.
Extensive and continuing news media coverage, together with a brochure we distribute, has helped with recruiting. The best public recognition, however, has been generated by the participants themselves. For example, the owner of a local beauty salon recently told me of a conversation with an 81-year-old customer who was in a hurry because she was "going to work." The customer explained that she was working in a school, and commented on how smart, polite, and caring today's kids are. "People don't realize how hard teachers work," she said. That's a very positive image for our schools, carried to the community by a highly credible source.

Generations Exchange

Our school district also runs a less formal program with the same objective: to find new ways to bring seniors into the schools. Called Generations Exchange, this program involves several hundred seniors—a cross section of the community—in various volunteer activities each year.
The idea for the program was sparked several years ago when we launched Grandparents' Day, an effort to strengthen the bond between grandparents and grandchildren by giving grandparents a first-hand look at their grandchildren's school experience. We also made it a forum for grandparents to share their unique historical perspective, their strong values, and their work ethic.
Our first Grandparents' Day, however, pointed up a problem: there weren't enough grandparents. To remedy this situation, we developed a Foster Grandparents program, linking unrelated children and seniors in a simulated grandparent-grandchild relationship. Over the years, this program has proven to be a wonderful experience of love, sharing, and compassion for both kids and seniors.
Other Generations Exchange activities include Computer Friends, in which students teach seniors computer skills (or vice versa); and an Intergenerational Arts Fest showcasing artwork and choral and instrumental music performed jointly by children and seniors. District 15 has also adopted all the senior citizen housing complexes in the area, taking children to these complexes for special programs as well as bringing the residents to schools.

What Computers Can't Teach

Have our efforts to include seniors as an integral part of our schools had an impact on the students themselves? Most definitely. Consider what happened when one senior volunteer worked with three 6th graders in our Computer Friends project.
The students were engaged in a problem-solving program involving a simulated trek on the Oregon Trail. They were so engrossed that they brushed aside the volunteer's ideas. When she persisted, suggesting that they needed a larger food supply and stronger animals to transport their possessions, one boy turned to her and demanded: "How do you know so much?" Her quiet reply stopped them in their tracks: "My great-grandmother was on the Oregon Trail," she explained. "I have her letters about her experiences during the trip." Later, she shared the letters with the students. Reality, the 6th graders discovered, is a lot more interesting than a computer simulation.
In recognition of our two exchange programs for seniors, the Retirement Research Foundation awarded our school district a $25,000 ENCORE (Encouraging Community Responsiveness to the Elderly) grant in 1995. The foundation, endowed by the late John D. MacArthur, is the largest private foundation in the United States devoted exclusively to aging and retirement issues. The money went to our district's Educational Foundation, and we have allocated it to the Senior Exchange budget to enhance the program and attract more participants.
End Notes

1 In addition to Palatine, the district serves all or part of seven municipalities in northwest suburban Cook County: Rolling Meadows, Inverness, Hoffman Estates, Schaumburg, Elk Grove Village, South Barrington, and Arlington Heights.

John G. Conyers has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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