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In Conn. District, Senior Citizens Study Alongside Students

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WILTON, CONN.--Like all the other students in Joanna Ecke's American-literature class at Wilton High School here, Sister M. Andrina Logan dutifully carries her textbook to class four days a week and does the required readings by Mark Twain, Henry David Thoreau, and Benjamin Franklin. She takes copious notes, writes in her journal, and participates in classroom discussions.

There is one obvious difference, however, between this student and the teenagers in this class: At 78, Sister Logan has more than 60 years on her younger classmates here.

"It's neat to talk to her,'' says Cary Joshi, an 11th-grade student and classmate, "because a lot of things we talk about in American literature are things she has experienced.''

Sister Logan and her classmates are part of an unusual effort in this small town to bridge the gap between the generations and to improve the image of Wilton's public schools among the local taxpayers.

Since last year, the school system has been inviting local senior citizens to take selected courses at the high school. The seniors are not expected to do the homework or to write term papers--only to come as often as they are able and to enjoy the classes.

"Our community, like a lot of communities, has been a little devoid of contact with the elderly,'' says Donald D. Holt, the school system's administrator for curriculum. "We're not a community characterized by extended families, and it's helped get a little sense of that for our students.''

"This is also something we can do for a population that's essentially been left out,'' he adds.

Group With 'Serious Questions'

Wilton is an affluent bedroom community in a bucolic part of the state, a place where many residents ride the train to work in New York City each day and historic homes stand among the dogwood trees in bloom this time of year. Like a growing number of small communities, however, 60 percent of the residents here do not currently have children in the local schools. And few parents of young families can afford to buy homes here.

The altruistic motives behind the program notwithstanding, a major impetus for the school system's open invitation to the community's senior citizens was a spring 1990 election in which the district's budget was narrowly approved.

"In analyzing the outcome of the elections and trying to find out what led to voters' attitudes, we found out that senior citizens felt particularly uninvolved in the school system,'' Mr. Holt says. "We had a population out there with some serious questions.''

In an effort to find a way to increase senior citizens' understanding of the school system, Mr. Holt met with representatives from a local moderate-income housing project for the elderly and the town social-services worker most closely involved with that population.

"We thought, 'Why not just invite them to come on in?''' Mr. Holt explains.

The district's invitation was timely, says Linda Rost, the social-services worker who participated in those meetings. At the time, programs offered in the town for senior citizens tended to be long on entertainment and medical information and short on intellectual stimulation.

When a humanities course for seniors was finally organized, Ms. Rost says, the response was enthusiastic.

"People think senior citizens' minds shut down at 65,'' Ms. Rost says. "We had a group of people in town who didn't want to go to the senior center, who wouldn't be caught dead playing bingo or doing sing-a-longs.''

"People had a stereotypical view of what senior citizens were like and what their needs were,'' she says.

School officials decided to offer the seniors a wide range of courses, inviting them to study everything from commercial design to Shakespeare with the 800-plus students enrolled at the high school. They chose only courses where seats were available and teachers were receptive to the idea.

While every teacher asked to participate agreed, some say they were apprehensive at first.

"I worried that I would not be as intelligent as I would like to think I am,'' says Sheila Henry, the head of the school's English department. "It's one thing to teach teenagers, because even though they are so bright, you are aware you have a few years on them.''

"It's another thing,'' she continues, "to teach people who graduated from Swarthmore in 1928 and have had a whole lifetime of experiences.''

There were also concerns, since unfounded, that students would not be open to the senior citizens.

"I thought it was a great idea,'' says Betsy Green, a 12th grader in Sister Logan's class. "My grandmother was an English teacher, and I thought she would get a kick out of something like this.''

Dispelling Stereotypes

Thus far, about 20 senior citizens have taken the school system up on its invitation. Some come as many as four days a week, negotiating the school's crowded parking lot and rotating class schedules to attend the 40-minute sessions. And, while some have dropped out of classes for health reasons or because the sessions took up too much time, others, such as Sister Logan, have taken classes every semester.

Teachers at the school say Sister Logan, a retired nun who taught in Catholic schools for 50 years, comes almost daily, showing up early for class and leaving her cane by the door.

"I wanted to keep my mind sharp, and I wanted the feeling of the classroom again,'' Sister Logan says. "I'm enjoying it to the nth degree.''

Everyone involved in the program says the experience has helped to dispel stereotypes. Some students have told their teachers they were surprised to find that the seniors, whom they may have thought of only as cantankerous and out of step, know so much.

"A lot of these kids have grandparents who live far away or [whom] they rarely see,'' Ms. Rost says. "It's been a normalizing experience to see aging as a natural part of life.''

And senior citizens come away impressed with the quality of the teaching in the schools, the amount of work the students are required to do, and the students' behavior. Even though some of the students dress in deliberately torn clothes, shave half their heads, and listen to loud music, the students appear to be responsible, the seniors have found.

"Without intruding on their lives, I felt quite warm about it,'' said Dr. John Pool, a retired cancer surgeon who took a drawing course at the high school.

Moreover, teachers and students say having the seniors in the class has enriched class discussions.

"Instead of two levels of experience in the class, there are three,'' Ms. Henry says. In a classroom discussion on Macbeth's precipitous nature, for example, Ms. Henry recalls, one of the seniors in the class noted that the life expectancy in Elizabethan times was much shorter.

"Maybe he was going for the gusto while he could,'' the older student remarked.

It was a perspective, Ms. Henry says, that she would not have otherwise encountered.

"It keeps you honest,'' Ms. Ecke says. "I find myself in talking about periods of American history, looking to her [Sister Logan] for confirmation.''

The program has had little effect, however, on school-budget elections. This spring, the school system's $28-million budget was approved by one of the narrowest margins in recent memory.

"Eight people aren't going to turn an election,'' Mr. Holt says."You start out with one thing in mind and discover there are so many other good things that can happen.''

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