It started as a sort of "pen pal" arrangement between a Baltimore elementary school and a Carroll County high school.
And yesterday, about 40 students from Francis Scott Key High School in Union Bridge visited their city cousins to celebrate what has become a full-fledged partnership.
"We really are partners, and that's what partners do -- they get to see each other," said Demetria Boyd, 7, a second-grader at Dr. Bernard Harris Sr. Elementary School, part of the "City-Country Connection."
"It just makes you feel better, knowing you can help somebody else," said Susie Morningstar, a high school junior from Union Bridge.
The unusual program is a joint project of the community service programs at both schools, with support from the state Education Department's Maryland Student Service Alliance. It opens a window for city and country students alike on each other's world -- a view they seldom get first-hand.
The city children, who live in the Oliver community, know little about rural life, said Lynne Mainzer, a staffer with Johns Hopkins University's Success for All program, who works with Harris Elementary.
Many of the rural high school students, meanwhile, see inner-city Baltimore through media coverage, said Alma W. Brown, the elementary school principal.
"I don't see how they can do anything but change their perceptions in a positive way" after visiting firsthand, she added.
The project got under way in the 1989-90 school year, prompted by Mainzer, a former guidance counselor and special education teacher at the Carroll County high school.
Mainzer was looking for a way to boost attendance rates at Harris Elementary, and hit on the idea of a long-distance partnership with the rural high school.
The program currently involves about 200 Key High School students. High school students offer the elementary school classes concrete incentives for classes with perfect attendance, including colorful banners.
But the help goes both ways. Children at the elementary school, for example, produced a video on test-taking tips for their high school partners.
In addition, the two schools compete to see which can post the highest percentage of children with perfect attendance. Harris Elementary School won in October, with 42 percent of its students having perfect attendance, compared with 34 percent at Key High School.
In most cases, the two schools relate to each other long distance. Yesterday, however, a group of Carroll County students journeyed to Baltimore for a series of assemblies. They donated books to the elementary school, and spent time reading with the younger students.
In February, students from Harris Elementary are expected to visit Key High School for a Black History Month program.
The interaction is valuable for both age groups, school officials say.
"Teen-agers can be kind of egocentric," said Rosalie Gardner, a literature teacher and community service coordinator at Key High School. The program "opens their eyes to many things."
For the Harris Elementary principal, the program forges a sense of community far beyond the immediate neighborhood.
"This is a very realistic setting for children to learn how to interact," said Brown. "It's a real sharing, it's not artificial."