A partnership between Youngstown State University, Harding Elementary School and YSU Penguin Pen Pals reaches a milestone this week when Harding students meet face-to-face with their Penguin Pals for the first time.
The meeting will take place 12:45 to 1:45 p.m., Friday, Jan. 18, at Harding Elementary School.
Planning for the new initiative began last spring when Dr. Rashid Abdu, a local retired physician and regular volunteer at Harding Elementary, approached the Youngstown Board of Education, Harding teachers and administration with the idea of connecting the children of Harding with college students. During Abdu’s work with a former NEOUMED student, he learned of a similar program at Ohio State University and believed this type of program would be a great fit for Harding Elementary. Last spring, with the help of Claudia Charity, manager of Community Partnerships with the Youngstown City School District, Amy Cossentino, assistant director of the University Scholars and Honors Programs at YSU was identified as the connection to turn the idea into action.
Cossentino sought out student leaders in the University Scholars and Honors Programs to assist with the planning and execution of the project. YSU Scholars Ashley Orr, Eric Shehadi and Heather Miller served as leaders, and worked in conjunction with staff and teachers to develop the program outline and logo. Once details of the program and a calendar of activities were established, the next phase was the recruitment for Pen Pals.
“The enthusiasm and response from the YSU Scholars & Honors students to the call to serve as a Pen Pal was incredible,” Cossentino said. “At first, we had more YSU Pen Pals than we had participating students at Harding.”
Currently, 63 Harding Elementary students in the third and fourth grades exchange writings in their journals every other week for a total of 12 cycles for the academic year. The benefits of participation in the program have been evident to both teachers and YSU Penguin Pals, observing an improvement in the children’s writing skills, spelling and penmanship over the past several months.
“The students can hardly wait for the notebooks to return to the school,” said Harding teacher Kelly Swiger. “Their excitement is so great to read and then respond to their Pen Pals that I have to get them to slow down.” The teachers are also incorporating the use of computers to help develop their keyboarding proficiency.
The YSU Pen Pals also are receiving benefits from their participation. Jayne Catlos, YSU Pen Pal, said, “Writing to my Pen Pal helps me think creatively: how I can phrase things to get a deeper response from him, how I can encourage him to improve something without focusing on the negative. I think that it is a valuable skill to know how to communicate with people of all ages. Also, as someone who has not ruled out education as a major and does enjoy volunteering with kids, I enjoy the effect it has on me and the lessons I am learning.”
Another YSU Pen Pal, Annie Carpenter, commented, “I really feel like I am outlet for my pen pal because they are free to talk and write about anything they want. It helps me see through the eyes of an elementary school child and be able to begin feeling how they feel in their own environment.”
The Pen Pal program will conclude April 19 with the final delivery of journals to Harding with writings from their YSU Pen Pals wishing them success with their state exams and a fun, safe summer. A closing ceremony will be held on the campus of YSU in April with the Harding students. This year’s participating students will continue with the program when they enter fifth grade. Next fall a new class of fourth–grade students will enter the Pen Pal Program and the number of students participating from Harding Elementary will double.
YSU student project leader and Pen Pal Ashley Orr hopes she hears of these children a decade from now, “receiving scholarships to YSU and becoming YSU Penguins themselves, and even serving as YSU Penguin Pen Pals.”