Schools mix in Partners Program

Pennsylvania effort aims to foster urban-suburban relationships

January 21, 2001|By Sara Isadora Mancuso | Sara Isadora Mancuso,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

MULLICA HILL, N.J. - The room was a whirlwind of worlds colliding. While some students threw cautious sideways glances, some of the boys threw playful punches. A number of girls, meanwhile, giggled as they linked arms - already girlfriends for life.

The sixth-grade swirl consisted of 15 students, many of them black, from the Academy for the Middle Years, a Philadelphia public school, and 20 students, most of them white, from the Friends School of Mullica Hill, N.J.

Both schools are participants in the Partners Program, a University of Pennsylvania initiative that aims to foster ties between students from suburban and urban schools through field trips, school visits and letter writing.

"The program is very much about both groups' learning about each other," said Linda Hansell, executive director and founder of Partners, which started in 1990. "It's a way to bridge cultural differences in order to learn to feel comfortable with each other."

The day's activities touched on the Friends School's Quaker roots. The students spent several minutes in the meetinghouse pews, encouraged to sit quietly or speak to the group as a whole, as is typical in Quaker services.

"When you get kids to talk about their differences, they're more relaxed about it," said Peter Manzelmann, the middle school principal at Mullica Hill, which started with the program in 1993.

After sitting for 10 minutes of silence, the students exploded into chatter as soon as they stepped outside. Many found that they had common interests with pen pals whom they had begun writing once a month at the beginning of the school year.

Through notes about sports and music, John Del Rossi Jr., 11, of Mullica Hill, and Brian Horsey, 11, of the Academy, have become the type of friends who complete each other's sentences.

"It's fun to interact with someone from a different school, a different environment," John said.

"And we still have a lot in common," Brian chimed in.

The similarities extend beyond hobbies and favorite movies. Swapping notebook pages filled with stories about annoying sisters is typical for Katie Corda, 12, and Gwen LaMastro, 11, both of Mullica Hill, and Christina Williams, 11, of the Academy.

On a hunch, Christina brought a travel chess set with her yesterday. She had guessed right: Both of her pen pals enjoy the game.

"I can play chess," Gwen said, "but they both can cream me."

About 1,800 students from Pennsylvania take part in Partners. Mullica Hill is the only New Jersey school involved.

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