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September 1, 1998
Vol. 56
No. 1

The Power of Cross-Level Partnerships

At an Idaho elementary school, cross-grade partnerships have put the brakes on bullies, fostered student friendships, and energized educators.

A 3rd grade boy holds the hand of a kindergarten girl as he leads her back to her classroom. Just before recess, four 5th grade boys arrive in a 2nd grade classroom to teach playground games to new students, and several veteran 2nd graders join in. Second and 4th graders together study parts of speech as they prepare to write poems. Within the school building and on the playground, students and teachers greet one another in a friendly, comfortable way. Much of the credit for the tangible feeling of caring at Monroe Elementary School in Boise, Idaho, is due to the partnerships that faculty, families, and students have built across grade levels.
In fall 1994, staff members and parents began working toward site-based school improvement, using the Onward to Excellence (OTE) program developed and disseminated by the Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory. A leadership team composed of the principal, two classroom teachers, a classified employee, and a parent assessed needs to set school improvement goals.
According to the data the team compiled, the academic performance of students at this small, middle-income, K–6 elementary school (fewer than 300 students, 97 percent white, 20 percent eligible for free or reduced lunch) was excellent. Students scored above the school district and national averages in all areas of standardized achievement tests.
Despite this strong academic performance, however, families were concerned about safety. They worried about older children harassing younger children on the playground and on their way to and from school. A student survey that identified bullying as a problem corroborated this fear. Given the concerns of students, families, and teachers, the leadership team identified "improving peer respect" as an ongoing goal and the designated school improvement goal for the 1995-96 school year.
Work toward improving peer respect began as the leadership team wrote implementation plans for Monroe Elementary School. These multifaceted plans addressed the needs of students, staff, and parents and called for the establishment of a student conflict resolution team to mediate playground problems at recess; faculty team-building sessions; and a parent workshop on helping children develop respect for others. Both the counselor and the school resource officer added sessions about bullies and victims to their schedule of periodic classroom instruction.

Collaborating Across Grades

When Monroe launched the partnership concept, the leadership team paired each classroom teacher with a colleague in another grade. Initially, 1st grade teachers were paired with 4th grade teachers, 2nd with 5th, and one 3rd grade with a 6th; the other 3rd and 6th grade teachers each took a session of kindergarten. The implementation plan called for the partners to conduct two joint class sessions a month and for the teachers to share one 30-minute common planning time a week to plan for these class sessions.
Randomly assigning 1st grade teachers to be buddies with 4th grade teachers, 2nd with 5th, and so on, failed to account for different personality and teaching styles. Some teachers wanted to participate in activities across grade levels more frequently than twice a month, whereas others did not. In April 1996, the leadership team amended the implementation plan to tailor it more closely to staff needs. For the 1996-97 school year, the leadership team, with staff input, decided to require at least two grade levels between partners, but to allow teachers to suggest with whom they would be willing to work. Teachers submitted the names of at least three preferred partners, and the team paired teachers accordingly.
As the partnership program at Monroe has matured, student activities have become more sophisticated. Early in the program, students participated mainly through joint art projects or buddy reading. The expanded activities now include writing, math, and science. A walk down the halls of Monroe might reveal intermediate and primary students cowriting poetry or fiction, learning together about nonstandard measurement, or making instruments to view stars.

Buddying Benefits

The formation of cross-grade level student-teacher partnerships has had a tremendous impact at Monroe Elementary School. By fostering positive interactions between grade levels, the partnerships have defused the bullying problem. Parents praise the partner program. The parent of a primary student said, "My daughter loves her 5th grade buddy. She is not afraid of the big kids when she goes out to recess." Another parent of five current and former Monroe students noticed a definite improvement in the level of respect:I could see a commitment or connection between grade levels. I think it stems from giving the older children some responsibility with the younger children. A sense of ownership has developed, it's not "us against them." The bigger kids work toward being on their best behavior and the little kids have the burden of responsibility from making a wrong decision removed. The students learn to respect and feel affection for someone not in their immediate family and they also learn you only get what you give.
After participating in cross-grade level partnerships for four years, the Monroe Elementary School staff also gives high marks to the positive inter-action between younger and older students. One teacher said,It's been really good for my classes. Last year, they were so needy. I had seven kids who were at-risk of failure and didn't relate well to kids their own age. They really like the lovingness of the younger students and having someone look up to them. It made them feel important. My kids look forward to getting together with their buddies.
A primary grade teacher described how younger children benefit from interaction with older children at the same school: "My kids adore their buddies. They learn that the bigger kids aren't bullies, and they learn nurturing feelings." For one intermediate grade teacher, the benefit of older children interacting with younger children meant that "they learn to work with and respect the younger children. I think they feel more like they are in a role where they can help and protect the younger kids."
The demographics at Monroe School have shifted since the original site-based school improvement plan was developed, which makes it difficult to obtain accurate, quantifiable data on changes in student behavior. The school now serves more than 36 per-cent of its student body free or reduced lunch, and the student turnover has increased to nearly 14 percent in the 1997-98 school year. Despite these changes, the playground supervisor, who has worked at Monroe for eight years, continues to notice a difference in the way older students and younger students interact on the playground: "All of the kids seem to find more to do and the younger kids aren't as intimidated by the older kids. Some of the older students even seem protective of their younger buddies."

Strengthening Teaching Through Collaboration

Not only do students benefit from partnerships across grades, but their teachers benefit as well. One teacher said, "Students benefit because we [the teachers] share ideas. I'm much more enthusiastic about what I'm going to do because other teachers have talked about what they're doing. I'm more excited about teaching. The partnerships improve morale for the whole school." A teacher who is new to the elementary school said,The other teachers have been teaching much longer than I and have great ideas. I don't feel pressured to come up with wonderful activities every time we meet and I am able to add theirs to my file. On the other hand, they are supportive of my ideas and give me suggestions on how their kids can help mine. As a first-year teacher, having other teachers talk to me and do planning with me every week makes me feel included in the school, makes me feel other people respect my opinion, respect my ideas, that they treat me as an equal, and that I'm not an outsider.
Monroe teachers have also indicated that the cross-grade partnerships helped resolve several personality conflicts among staff members. One teacher recounted the effect of working with colleagues in other grades: "When it started, I would have chosen maybe two people to buddy with. Now, I'd buddy with just about anybody who would do it. It's opened me up to be more accepting of other people."
Teachers reaped additional rewards through their participation in the pairings. Enthusiasm for teaching increased. One teacher reported an elevation of trust: "Teachers work together for their students. In teams, teachers have more ideas, skill, education, and experience. Teachers don't have to play 'super teacher' all by themselves." Educators are able to share their workloads with colleagues. And further, working with colleagues at other grade levels helps Monroe teachers provide more consistent instruction from grade to grade.

The Payoffs of Partnering

Staff members have been able to take advantage of cross-grade level partnerships in other ways. For example, Idaho now requires teachers to take a technology proficiency test. Monroe has been able to implement technology training for staff members during school time, using the cross-grade level partnerships. Once a month, teachers plan activities for their joint classes. While one teacher supervises the activities, the other participates in an hour of technology training. On the following day, the teachers switch roles. This arrangement enables students to remain under the tutelage of a certified educator while their teachers take time for necessary professional development.
As Monroe Elementary selects a new site-based improvement goal, cross-grade level partnerships have become integral to the everyday workings of the school, helping to create a positive, respectful learning environment for students and teachers.
End Notes

1 Cotton, K. (1995). Effective schooling practices: A research synthesis 1995 update. Portland, OR: Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory.

Stephanie Youngerman has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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