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Banny Ackerman and Ruth Yeiser
Building Bridges Between the City and the Suburbs
Only thirteen miles separate the classrooms of Banny Ackerman, CW'73, and Ruth Yeiser, C'87, but to get together, their students must do more than board a school bus. They must cross an urban-suburban divide and a gulf made by socioeconomics and race.
Ackerman teaches fourth grade at the predominantly white and affluent Wayne Elementary School in Radnor Township. Yeiser teaches fifth grade at Samuel B. Huey Public School in West Philadelphia, where students are mainly African-American, and many are poor.
Without the PARTNERS program, the students probably wouldn't cross paths.
But at the start of the school year, they exchange pen pal letters and collages. Then they meet in person, alternating monthly visits to each other's schools for social and educational activities, and taking day trips to places like Gettysburg. Ackerman says, "I think what the kids realize is that, 'There are some differences, but there are also a lot of things we can share and do.'" She says, "My kids go to the city for their first experience and [see that], 'Their classroom looks exactly like ours except it's on the fourth floor, and there might be some bars on the windows, but there are lots of activities and books and [artwork] on the walls, and they're talking about the same stories.'"
A total of 1,080 students and forty teachers from Philadelphia and suburban schools participate in the program.
Through PARTNERS, students explore ideas that transcend race and class, such as how to resolve conflicts. "For the first couple of meetings, they're absolutely best friends and you can't separate them," Yeiser explains. "Then, by about the fourth or fifth meeting, some conflicts arise. I tell them, 'Friendships are like a marriage. For the first few months, you're on your honeymoon and the other person can do absolutely no wrong. Then, you drop some of your best manners...That's when the best friendships can develop, because every relationship must have conflict. You resolve it, and you go on from there.'"
Anthony, a Huey student, wrote in his journal about the program: "It helps different races get along. My pen pals, Greg, Matt, and Florian are white, but they still get along with me. This is some advice to help you get a new friend. First, you find someone you want to be your friend, then you ask them ... If they say, 'No,' respect that and find another person to be your friend. If they say, 'Yes,' ask what they would like to do. After you do [that], ask if they can do what you want to do. Then tell them that they are a great friend." Some of the Wayne-Huey friendships do continue after the school year ends. "One kid's partner called out of the blue, and it turned out they were taking the same musical instrument," Ackerman says. "So both of them were blasting the french horn into the phone with each other. I've also heard of people arranging family trips to the zoo." Some parents have volunteered as chaperones, and have stayed involved in the program, she adds.
Stirring discussions follow some visits, according to Yeiser. Her students will ask, for instance, "'How come they have a big, beautiful playground and we have blacktop?' So we talk about that ... We tie it in with the civil rights movement" -- how far it's come and how far it still has to go -- "and that's been real empowering to the kids."
PARTNERS, which has a $110,000 operating budget this year, depends completely on donations and grants. Dr. Linda Hansell, the program's director, said she's pleased with its tremendous growth and cited ways it continues to expand - linking some schools to the Internet and forming partnerships with groups such as Philadelphia Friends of Outward Bound. "I get very excited about the positive connections that have been made and the bridges that have been built between teachers and students and parents so far, and would like to think that ... a lot more teachers and students and parents will be connecting."
By Susan Lonkevich
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