Families & the Community Q&A

How One High School Became a Model for Intergenerational Learning

By Caitlynn Peetz — March 22, 2023 5 min read
Swampscott High School students and Senior Center members hold a quilt they made together for Black History Month at Swampscott High School, which is collocated and shares space with the senior center in Swampscott, Mass., on March 8, 2023.
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Swampscott, Mass., is setting the standard for intergenerational learning.

In the small town north of Boston, school and community leaders pooled their resources in 2007 to build a new high school and senior center, collocated in the same building.

It’s a unique set-up that lends itself to partnerships beneficial to both students and older adults, and could be a model for other communities as more Americans age and the school-aged population shrinks.

The high school and senior center are in the same building, but each is concentrated in its own area, with separate entrances. The high school sometimes shares its communal spaces—like the cafeteria, gym, fitness center, dance studio, computer labs, and lecture halls—with the senior center, and students and seniors often intermix.

Swampscott High School Principal Dennis Kohut and the senior center’s outreach social worker Sabrina Clopton talked with EdWeek about the set-up and how they make the collaborations work. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What kind of programs are in place for students and seniors to interact?

Kohut: There are so many, and it continues to evolve.

Last year, students interviewed some folks in the senior center about their experiences around race in America, which was awesome and really well done. Then we had an all-school assembly—the first one we did coming out of the pandemic, which brought everyone together in a fun way.

Editor’s Note: Swampscott High School’s student population is about 75 percent white. The school participates in the METCO Program, in which Black and Latino students from nearby towns are enrolled in the school. METCO began in 1966 in Massachusetts to help desegregate schools.

Clopton: When the senior center launched our website, the students set up a booth here where we had our Chromebook out and they were training our seniors on how to access the website. We have appointments here at least once a week, where the kids in the “tech ninjas” program volunteer to teach seniors how to work technology.

The school also has a program for kids ages 18 to 22 with developmental delays, which has more of a focus on transitioning to workforce readiness or developing life skills. So, we’re a really logical partnership for that because there are a lot of like, work-related kind of skills that can be implemented here without the stigma of kind of doing it at school with kids that they’ve gone to school with for years.

The older students help maintain our coffee bar. They help with getting rooms ready for activities, and every Friday they help set up for a movie that we do every Friday here at the senior center.

There are mainstream students who come in to help, too, so there’s collaboration on a lot of fronts. I would say that students are pretty much fully integrated into the operation of the senior center at this point.

Are there any unstructured interactions between students and seniors?

Clopton: The outdoor spaces are really where a lot of the synergy happens. There’s an outdoor track that we walk on and oftentimes we cross paths with education classes that are coming and going, which is really cool and energizing for the seniors.

It’s also about a mile to walk around our campus, and it takes us through a community garden the physical education students use and our seniors have been interested in helping maintain.

What benefits do these collaborations have for both the students and seniors?

Kohut: I think for a lot of students, it gives them a chance to really hone skills and build their self-confidence. Some of our tech ninjas are truly experts at their craft.

Also, for our students of color, being consistently involved in the community is one of the goals because one thing we’ve definitely heard from them is feeling like they’re sort of separate from the community.

So, now, to have them have this opportunity to be really naturally integrated into a community service is terrific.

But it’s not only students of color, there are kids who would identify as white or Caucasian who are involved, and it’s great to see everyone together as part of the school and community, creating things that are sort of like traditions.

Clopton: On the senior center side, we love it when the kids come over. I feel like they elevate the energy when they’re here at the center. They really just bring a lot of positivity and laughter.

The seniors always want to stop and talk to the kids about what they’re thinking about for college or what’s going on with them, so it’s really good socialization.

It’s fun for them to be able to interact with kids that aren’t their own grandkids or nieces and nephews.

There’s no downside, in my opinion.

Have there been any major problems?

Clopton: Honestly, the biggest problem we’ve had is that we share parking, and sometimes kids would park in the senior spots. But I think the more the kids interact with the seniors, the less we’re seeing that problem because they’re gaining empathy and see it’s not just a parking spot, but if you take it, you’re impacting a person.

How often do school and senior center leaders talk or meet?

Kohut: We formally meet at the beginning of the school year or over the summer. We don’t really have a consistent meeting set aside—maybe we should—but it’s kind of my philosophy that it’s my role to help arrange things and make sure I’m there to support, then make sure I’m not in the way of things getting done.

Right now, the interactions have been pretty organic, and that’s worked really well for us, but that might not be the case for everyone, everywhere, and it just depends on the people you have.

What kind of changes have you made to class schedules to encourage more collaboration?

Kohut: We’re in our second year of our new schedule. We used to do a “waterfall” schedule (when students’ schedules change from day to day, so they take each class at different times), and it was great, but it also made partnerships really challenging because kids’ schedules would change every day.

So it was hard to say to [Clopton] when students were available and it would change all the time, versus their schedule being the same day-to-day and having a consistent, predictable chunk of time available.

So, if schools are thinking about this, they absolutely have to have a schedule that is relatively static—other models just don’t seem to work well with trying to do anything that’s a partnership in the community.

Do you have any tips for other communities considering a similar partnership?

Clopton: I think that identifying a goal is a good starting point for any intergenerational program. That can evolve, but if you have a goal that’s mutually aligned with the interests of both parties, that’s a recipe for success.

Whether that’s something that unifies, like a Black History Month program, or creating something that can be utilized in multiple spaces. All of our partnerships have been successful and I think that’s because there’s that mutual goal and understanding, and that gets everyone excited.

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