One school day morning in January, 40 8th-graders stepped off a Charger bus outside the McColl Center for Art and Innovation where they met a group of 8th-graders from Bruns Academy, a public school in West Charlotte.
Off to the side, Michael Magno, Middle School Head, and Barry Sherman, Bruns student advocate, huddled to go over last-minute details for the day. They, along with the help of McColl staff, tasked the combined group of 70 students to work as a collective unit to construct 1,500 “Blessing Boxes” for a community social project.
The collaborative effort to make a positive difference in the lives of others is but one example of a unique partnership, now in its second year, between PDS and Bruns.
Magno and Sherman first met at a 2015 middle school diversity workshop in Charlotte. They found common interest in their desire to bring students together for a dynamic and innovative experience of learning and leadership development.
They were looking for a partnership, not a service project between schools.
Since 2009, PDS engaged middle schoolers with another public school, J.H. Gunn Elementary. They participated in service projects with J.H. Gunn students — such as tutoring, sports clinics, presentations and supply drives as well as a pen pal project.
The ongoing partnership has helped to integrate meaningful community service with instruction and reflection to enrich the learning experience, teach civic responsibility and strengthen community ties.
About three years ago, the Middle School Student Life team — comprised of grade level deans and advisors for Student Council, National Junior Honor Society and Student Services — started exploring the addition of another type of interaction with a local public school.
“We wanted students to work together so that there would be equal responsibility by the students involved,” said Magno. “We were not sure what to expect, but we knew that just trying to get students from different parts of the city together would be positive.”
Bruns Academy is a pre-kindergarten through 8th-grade school within the Project L.I.F.T (Leadership and Investment For Transformation) zone of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools.
The partnership’s goal is to break through the isolated learning experiences of each group, something in which Sherman is especially interested.
“I believe being educated in a ‘bubble’ is very problematic, whether it’s a bubble of privilege or a bubble of inequity/marginalization,” said Sherman. “Specifically, for Bruns scholars, I’m very concerned about the lack of access and exposure they have to learning experiences and opportunities that take them beyond the limitations of their immediate surroundings.”
Magno wants students to be able to work collaboratively with anyone, anywhere, at any time.
To reiterate the equality of the partnership, the group adopted the premise, “The Providence Day students need the Bruns Academy students as much as the Bruns Academy students need the Providence Day students.”
Formulating a Dream
In 2015, PDS’s Middle School Student Life team identified 20 students in leadership positions to participate alongside 20 Bruns 8th-graders in the B-BOLD (Bruns Believers Optimizing Leadership Development) elective class.
When the two groups met for the first time in January 2016, Magno and Sherman were unsure if the project would be successful.
Themed “WEhAVE A DREAM,” the partnership’s first year focused on bringing the students together to work on solving problems. Through a series of six meetings from January to April, the group did critical thinking workshops and art projects, attended a diversity conference and reflected in a celebratory gathering.
In a group design challenge, Dr. Ryan Welsh, PDS Upper School English teacher and design strategist, posed the question: “How might we best support the leaders in the communities where we live and learn?”
The students asked questions to faculty from both schools about their leadership experiences. Afterwards, the students split into groups and were tasked with coming up with a prototype of what supporting a leader looked like.
Final projects ranged from conceptual ideas of a day of leadership training to a physical prototype of a watch that helps school administrators identify students in need.
At the end of the challenge, Welsh asked the students: “How might we best serve as leaders in the communities where we live and learn?” He wanted them to take what they learned and transform their thoughts into actions at their respective schools.
Welsh said working with the Bruns and PDS students was an exciting and fulfilling design project, one that produced some of the most creative ideas he’s seen.
“The great thing about diversity is its ability to collaborate toward innovation and creativity,” said Welsh.
Andrea Downs, PDS Middle and Upper School art teacher, facilitated a group art project where she asked the students to think about their hopes and fears about the future. The students wrote down their thoughts on ribbons and then wove them into a collective piece of art.
“The idea was for them to internalize and physically connect these fears and hopes for the future, with the hope that they may start to consider these as the things that connect us ... rather than the things that divide us,” said Downs.
At the final meeting of the year, Bruns and PDS students worked in pairs to create a collaborative “We Are” poem. They wrote the poems onto cloth that they wove into the same loom — this served as a final reflective piece at the end of the partnership.
Afterward, the students shared what they liked and what they wanted to change for the next year. Many of them indicated they wanted more time to simply hang out with their new friends, play games and get to know each other.
Based on the feedback and successes, both Magno and Sherman agreed the program should continue.
“We greatly expanded the project to reach more students,” said Sherman. “And we have focused more this year on making sure the students have a lot of opportunity to directly interact with each other.”
The new plan included six meetings spread out over the entire school year, as well as involving more students from each school. Seventy PDS students — over half of the 8th grade class — applied for the 40 spots.
PDS 8th-grade student Molly Kerrigan applied because she wanted to get out of her comfort zone and meet people with whom she would not normally get to interact.
“I think this partnership is important because many people are isolated to their school communities and don’t think about how there are kids just like them in other schools,” said Molly.
“I feel it’s really important to socially expose yourself to as many situations as possible because it helps you develop your communication and social skills,” she said.
PDS 8th-grader John O’Neil agreed. “I think this partnership is crucial for us so that we can bridge the gap between our two schools,” he said.
To kick off the 2016-17 school year, the new group of PDS and Bruns students discussed empathy, a theme that would connect all of their interactions for the year.
During a meeting break, Magno noticed all the students huddled in a corner where they, unprompted, played a game similar to the ones that they were tasked to do in the design challenge.
“Those are the improvised moments that we as adults need to step back and simply observe,” said Magno.
During a February gathering, Downs facilitated an art project involving pairs of students, one from each school, drawing each other’s eyes. Before they started, each student reflected on a time when they felt empathy for someone else.
“When you look into someone’s eyes, you are beginning to be interested in and consider their perspective and their experience,” said Downs.
The students split their drawings between two panels, one to hang at Bruns and one to hang at PDS. Words from the students’ reflections on empathy connect the drawings.
While largely successful, the partnership still faced challenges along the way. One has been transportation for the Bruns students to and from off-campus sessions.
While en route to a diversity conference with the PDS students, Magno received a call from Sherman that Bruns’ scheduled transportation fell through. Magno redirected the PDS bus to Bruns Academy to pick up their students, so they all arrived late together.
Recently, Sherman received grant funding to assist with the transportation.
Dr. Nadia Johnson, PDS Diversity and Multicultural Education executive director, said overcoming such challenges only strengthens the partnership.
“These are … the times when we learn what it means to be a collective community,” she said. “We are committed to supporting Bruns in every way possible and remaining flexible.”
While together, leaders from PDS and Bruns said that they noticed positive behavioral changes with their respective group of students.
“While the students are doing a good job of coming together, at times, it is apparent that [PDS] students are a bit uncertain when it comes to stepping out of their comfort zones,” said Johnson. “The Bruns students help make our students feel comfortable and more open even when we are on the PDS campus.”
“I was surprised how much in common we had with each other despite the different backgrounds,” said PDS 8th-grader Avery Nelson.
Molly agreed. “I think that a lot of the PDS students got the impression that the Bruns kids wouldn’t be anything like us, but we were in for a big surprise,” she added.
On the other hand, Sherman was delighted by how this partnership immediately allowed and stimulated Bruns scholars to expand their thinking and behavior.
“When with the PD students, the Bruns scholars think and behave and speak in ways they rarely do with each other when at Bruns,” he said.
Both Sherman and Magno express pride in the success of the first two years of the partnership and hope to continue for many years.
Along with Welsh, they presented about the partnership in a session titled “Leadership Design and Improvisation” at the Private Schools With a Public Purpose national conference in Washington, D.C. in March.
And Magno indicated the partnership solidified his belief that all Middle School students yearn to make connections with people their age.
“My great hope is that we can keep working collaboratively and creatively to deepen and expand this effort in ways that still maintain the uniqueness, intimacy and profundity of connection between the kids,” said Sherman.
“I look forward to making this program an inspiration for other schools around the country,” Magno added.
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