Parochial school program teams up students for the best results
Parochial school students get a different message: "You're responsible for your own behavior and the behavior of a younger child. They're looking up to you, so watch your step."
Here's the surprising thing: Instead of sulking and snarling about the additional responsibility, the kids look forward to it. They even seem to like it.
Local parochial schools call them faith families or church families or prayer partners or buddies. No matter the name, they're designed to encourage good behavior, build character and create supportive communities.
At St. Mary and St. William schools, kindergarteners are matched with a fourth-grader who is their prayer "partner" or "buddy."
Fourth-grade students can hardly wait to be assigned their buddy, said Julie Garvin, St. Mary principal.
It's the same across town.
"The fourth-graders are so proud they get to be the big buddy," said Diane Rebout, St. William principal.
The "buddies" go to church together, and the older child is in charge of helping the younger navigate the hymnal and the intricacies of the service.
After a recent Wednesday morning service at St. Mary's, Dan Blomgren, 10, and his buddy, Grace Crofts, 6, talked about their partnership.
Is it difficult to be the big kid?
"Not really 'cause she behaves," Dan said.
Grace smiled at him shyly.
"We made pumpkins together," Grace contributed.
Taylor Salmon, 9, and Hannah Dunk, 5, were holding hands and swinging them back and forth in best-friends-forever fashion.
"You have to listen to Father in church," Taylor said of her duties.
The best part?
"I just love little kids," Taylor said.
At St. Mary, all grades are paired up: first with fifth, second with seventh and third with eighth. The sixth grade works with 3- and 4-year-old kindergarteners.
Lined up at church, the eighth-graders and their third-grade buddies look like a bar graph: tall, small, tall, small, tall, small, with the top of the little kids' heads reaching the elbows of their bigger buddies.
When one of the little guys started to get squirrelly, an older boy gently put a hand on the his back and smiled down at him.
The Rev. Stephen Umhoefer, St. Mary's priest, said it was wonderful to see the older students "who have done their share of acting like kids" modeling good behavior.
Garvin sees the difference, too.
When the younger kids are around, the behavior of the older kids is different, Garvin said.
At both schools, fourth-graders seem to understand what's expected.
"They've grown up with this system; it just seems natural to them," Garvin said. "They remember how cool it was to have a buddy."
St. William fourth-grade teacher JoAnne Gensler agreed.
"You hardly have to tell them anything," she said. "The kindergarteners know this is a safe friend. The fourth-graders know they have to be a role model, and they live up to those expectations."
Sarianna Quarne, 9, is partnered with Audrey O'Leary, 6. On a recent Monday at St. William, the girls worked on placemats for the school's Thanksgiving feast.
"We haven't really done any thing fun, yet," Quarne announced. "Later in the year, we'll get to make ice cream together."
Still, she was having a good time with her buddy, saying encouraging things about her work and reporting on the construction paper spider they had made together.
Eli Thurner, 10, and Ava Egger, 5, were focused on their art work.
What's it like to have an older buddy?
Ava paused in her coloring, and Eli burst in.
"Say something bad about me," Eli said cheerfully.
Along with pairing the older and younger students, St. William creates "church families," made up of several students from kindergarten to eighth grade. The "families" work together on projects ranging from crafts to community service.
At St. Mary, "faith families" are groups of children from different grades but close in age.
Each faith family meeting has a theme related to character development, explained Kevin Lofy, physical education and health teacher.
Topics include empathy, sportsmanship, good decision making and living compliant-free.
"Faith families bring us closer together," Lofy said. "It creates more of a sense of community."