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Propelling Education

The power of collaboration crosses the street in a one-of-a-kind partnership between Hamline Elementary School and Hamline University

By Marla Holt

Once a week during his lunch break, Hamline University Dean of Students Alan Sickbert crosses Snelling Avenue to toss a ball with Marshawn, a 7-year-old student at Hamline Elementary School. They play racquetball, chat about their days, and compete in games that the imaginative second-grader invents. Occasionally, Sickbert helps Marshawn with his homework.

“We value our time together,” Sickbert says. “For [Marshawn], it’s a reward for getting his schoolwork done, so he works hard and does well. For me, it’s getting to know Hamline’s neighbors in a more meaningful way.”

Sickbert and Marshawn have been hanging out together for two years as buddies in the Hand in Hand mentoring program. The student-led program is a key component of the Hamline to Hamline Collaboration, a unique partnership between the university and the elementary school that impacts hundreds of participants on both sides of the street.

The two institutions have been working together for more than 125 years. In 1991, the partnership was formalized, making it the nation’s first official elementary school-university alliance of its kind by taking a three-pronged approach to collaboration. The three components—academic and athletic department pairings with each grade level, one-on-one mentoring, and inside-the-classroom tutoring—all fall under the collaboration’s guiding principle that “college begins in kindergarten.”

“This collaboration puts some of Hamline’s core values into practice, such as social justice, equity, and inclusion,” says Fayneese Miller, president of Hamline University. “It’s a creative and integrated partnership that celebrates the cultural diversity in our midst while engaging community members in shared learning experiences.”

Sickbert was inspired to become a Hand in Hand mentor after being invited to a neighborhood walk with the elementary school students during the spring of Marshawn’s kindergarten year.

“Marshawn was my tour guide,” Sickbert says. “We ate lunch together and chatted quite a bit. He’s bright and full of energy, and we had a lot of fun together.” Sickbert so enjoyed meeting the boy that he signed up to be a mentor and asked to be matched with Marshawn. Now Sickbert joins hundreds of university members as they mentor, tutor, and learn alongside the elementary school students, modeling the importance of school and guiding the children toward a future that includes a college education.

Integrating the community

While many universities offer service programs that include tutoring and mentoring, the Hamline to Hamline Collaboration strengthens the commitment by building two-way, ongoing relationships between the institutions.

“This is a reciprocal partnership, with both campuses working together to support our belief that college begins in kindergarten,” says Nancy Vang, the university’s coordinator of the Hamline to Hamline Collaboration. “It greatly benefits both schools because it encourages Hamline [University] students to engage deeply with their community by creating positive relationships and it normalizes the idea of college for the elementary school students.”

Through regular interaction with university students, the act of going to college is demystified. The 280 students at Hamline Elementary, a neighborhood school serving Area E on the west side of Saint Paul, come from diverse backgrounds, with many likely to be the first in their families to attend college. More than 86 percent of the students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, and a majority are English language learners.

The children routinely visit the university campus to enjoy access to an unprecedented wealth of cultural and educational experiences—from occasionally eating lunch in the cafeteria with their mentors to taking swimming, soccer, and gymnastics lessons from varsity athletes to preparing legal arguments for a mock trial with law students. The activities break down barriers and encourage relationships to blossom.

“When the children come to Hamline, they can visualize themselves as college students,” President Miller says. “They also see that they are important to us. That is a valuable message to send.”

First among the shared experiences are academic pairings, such as the annual aforementioned collaboration between Mitchell Hamline School of Law and the elementary school’s fifth-graders. Each spring, the children prepare for and conduct a mock trial alongside law students and practicing attorneys in the law school’s courtroom. Kindergartners are invited to Bush Memorial Library to hear students in Hamline’s Master of Fine Arts in Writing for Children and Young Adults program read from their newly published children’s books. Journalism students teach photography, writing, and illustration to fourth- and fifth-graders as they work together to publish the Snelling Connection, a biannual newspaper. In first grade, children learn the elements of producing a play in collaboration with Hamline’s Theatre Department.

Alongside these examples of larger grade-level experiences, there are individualized collaborative projects that support the elementary school curriculum, such as a recent hands-on demonstration and discussion about the making of Silly Putty, conducted by Hamline chemistry students in a fourth-grade classroom.

Frank Shaw, mathematics professor and faculty liaison for the Hamline to Hamline Collaboration, sees these academic pairings as opportunities to enrich learning at the university level as well as at the elementary school.

“These experiences plant seeds of interest in the minds of the children, encouraging their potential, and hopefully making them more likely to go to college,” Shaw says. “At the same time, the university students see connections between what they are learning and what’s being taught at a lower level. They learn to abstract what they’re learning in a way that allows it to be explained to 10-year-olds.”

Shaw has led some of his students in an exercise in algebraic thinking with the elementary school’s third-graders, in which they timed and plotted the course of weighted parachutes they dropped from a height of 15 feet in front of Hamline’s library.

“One of the challenges is that the lessons we do together have to be seminal to what the children are learning, especially in math, which is tested, quantified, and examined so carefully by the public,” Shaw says.

Bobbie Johnson, principal of Hamline Elementary School, appreciates the university faculty’s willingness to share their academic expertise with her school. “The collaboration sets our school apart from other schools because we have this strong community connection that fosters student learning at every level,” she says. “By the time a student has gone from kindergarten through fifth grade, they’ve had quite a few varied experiences with the university students.”

In addition to the many Hamline students who participate in academic and athletic pairings and serve as Hand in Hand mentors, nearly 100 students regularly spend five to 10 hours a week as tutors in every classroom at the elementary school, assisting teachers with lessons in all subject areas and working with individual students or small groups. The tutors are work-study students from Hamline who are employed and trained through the federally funded America Reads and America Counts programs.

Marketing major Justin Malecha ’16 has been a tutor since he was a first-year student. He’s now in his second year working in the same kindergarten classroom, where he helps the children improve their reading and math skills.

“I love seeing the transformation in the kids from the beginning of the year to the end, as they move from struggling to flourishing,” he says. The experience has taught him patience, as well as creativity in reframing a difficult lesson so that students can understand it. The hugs and high fives he gets are a nice reward too. “The kids definitely remember me and are always excited to see me in the hall,” he says.

Hamline Elementary is fairly bustling with university students on a daily basis, says Elizabeth Casperson ’15, a fourth-grade teacher who is one of eight Hamline grads on staff at the school. “Our school is full of Hamline tutors every day,” she says. She herself tutored at Hamline Elementary while she was an undergraduate. She says the experience provided a sneak peek into her future as a teacher.

“I was so fortunate to be able to talk with the teachers about the curriculum and about studies or articles that I was reading for class,” she says. “Tutoring was a practical application of my education.” Casperson now enjoys the daily support of up to four tutors in her classroom, giving her fourth-graders additional adults in their lives to help keep them motivated and on track.

The teachers appreciate the steadiness of the tutoring program and welcome the extra attention the university students give to the children, says Jodie Wilson ’93, the elementary school’s faculty liaison for the collaboration. “This is a stable program that we rely heavily upon,” she says. “Having tutors—university students who are great role models—in the classroom is just a regular, expected part of the children’s school day.”

Planting seeds

The Hamline to Hamline Collaboration has shown that planting the idea of college early on has the power to propel kids toward postsecondary education. When strategic management students at Hamline completed three analyses of the collaboration in the early 2000s under the direction of Rita Johnson, Hamline professor emerita of management and economics, they found that 94 percent of the elementary school’s third-, fourth-, and fifth-graders wanted to go on to college. Most of those students said, however, that they didn’t think their families could afford to send them, which inspired Johnson and her husband to establish a four-year renewable Hamline to Hamline Scholarship, available to Hamline Elementary alumni who go on to attend Hamline University.

Mandy Vang, who was a student at the elementary school and is now a senior public health major at Hamline, has experienced the dual impact of the collaboration. She was inspired to go to college after having a Hand in Hand mentor in third and fourth grade. “I loved being able to talk to someone older and more educated,” she says. She is the first member of her family to attend college and is hoping to go on to medical school. She has mentored a girl at the elementary school and is currently tutoring students in first and third grades.

“Being involved in the program helped me see college as a possibility,” she says. “If it worked for me, it certainly can continue to work for today’s kids, as the more exposure to college they get, the likelier they are to want to go.”

It’s really what being a good neighbor is all about: serving and uplifting each other while working toward a common goal, says Nancy Vang. “It takes the whole community to keep this partnership alive.”

Strengthening ties with Hamline Elementary

As a neighborhood school, Hamline Elementary School draws students from families in Saint Paul’s Hamline-Midway neighborhood. However, due to a reduction in the number of children in the area, as well as some families opting to send their kids to other schools, enrollment at the school has been declining. It currently shares its building with Jie Ming Mandarin Immersion Academy, which is slated to move to its own facility in fall 2017, prompting worries that the Saint Paul School District might consider closing Hamline Elementary.

“We’ve received a verbal agreement that we’re safe from closure for now, but we must continue to focus on increasing our enrollment,” says Assistant Principal Kristin Reilly. “We believe in the power of the Hamline to Hamline Collaboration to help us cement our school as an amazing place for kids and to make Hamline an attractive choice for local families.”

Hamline University alumni are in a unique position to strengthen the collaborative partnership, Reilly says. “Alumni should take pride in this partnership, as it sets the university apart in its dedication to serving the needs of its community,” she says.

There are numerous ways to help, from providing funding to volunteering. Examples include:

  • Creating a fund to support the hiring of a full-time music teacher. The addition of a music program would boost Hamline Elementary’s curricular offerings to match opportunities available at other schools.
  • Creating and maintaining a community garden to beautify the school grounds and engage children in learning activities related to food systems and agriculture.
  • Helping students complete an art piece woven into the school’s fence that illustrates the history and work of the collaboration. 
  • Volunteering as a tutor in the school’s Reading Partners program to make a meaningful and measurable difference with a child who struggles with reading. 
  • Supporting the Hamline to Hamline Scholarship, which aids Hamline Elementary School alumni in attending Hamline University.

Watch a video and learn more about how you can help strengthen the Hamline to Hamline Collaboration by contacting Jodie Wilson ’93, the elementary school’s faculty liaison, at jodie.wilson@spps.org or calling the school at 651-293-8715.