KDT! Ithaca Brings "Buddies" Together

November 19, 2014

KDT! Ithaca Brings “Buddies” Together

Each spring, second-graders sit in pairs at tables at the Sciencenter. In front of them are wood bases, tape, popsicle sticks, styrofoam balls, and string. The museum educator leads an experiment about wind power challenging the students, who are paired with buddies from another elementary school, to design blades for a windmill that spins when placed in front of a fan. 

Students work together, cutting paper shapes and taping them to the end of popsicle sticks. They hurry with excitement attaching sticks and blades of various shapes to their windmill. Once they are ready to test their designs, they step in front of the fan.   

“Yes!” exclaim students proudly as they watch their turbines circle in the wind. “It worked!” shout others. 

This experiment is just one example of the kind of hands-on education students engage in every year through Kids Discover the Trail! Ithaca, a collaborative effort of the Ithaca Public Education Initiative (IPEI), the Discovery Trail (DT), and the Ithaca City School District (ICSD). This year marks the 10thanniversary of the program, which gives every district student the opportunity to visit a DT site each year during elementary school. KDT! Ithaca partners all 3000 Ithaca students in more than 150 classrooms with another classroom at the same grade level for the trips and pre- and post-trip activities.

Visits to DT sites connect two of the district’s elementary schools (except in Grade 4 since the Eight Square Schoolhouse can accommodate only one class at a time). Students are paired with “buddies” from the other school, and they often meet each other before the visits through pre-trip activities or modern-day pen pal messages using email or Skype. Students may share bus rides to the sites, eat lunch together, participate in structured field trip activities and/or open-ended exploration together, depending on the plans made by the DT site and classroom teachers.

In addition, KDT!Ithaca encourages the linked classrooms to keep in touch during the rest of the school year through “Buddy Up” trips.” Classes meet at local parks, or visit another DT site together. In 2014, these interactions happened in a variety of settings, such as trips to Taughannock Falls State Park, Bement-Billings Farmstead, Camp Comstock and the Alex Haley pool.   

KDT! Ithaca’sbuddying of students is a significant part of what makes the program special,” said DT Coordinator Nancy Grossman. “Mutual experiences foster understanding among students. When they enter middle school there are more familiar faces. We know that through KDT! programs students have made important connections that have led to long-lasting friendships.”  

“The KDT!program epitomizes our unrelenting goals of community and learning here in Ithaca,” said Ithaca High School Principal Jason Trumble. “Kids connecting and learning together across elementary schools is a great introduction to the relationships they will develop in middle school. Our yearbooks are filled with pictures of students on the trail, and students readily recollect their experiences with one another. As a longtime secondary administrator, I continue to marvel at the deep impact KDT! has had, and continues to have, on our youth preparing them for middle/high school and beyond.”

Many partnered teachers use the district-wide KDT! Ithacaplanning meeting to pair their students, while others take different approaches. For example, some teachers developed “student interest surveys” and use their students’ responses to pair buddies. Other teachers create and use their own “get to know you” activities to help facilitate in-person student interactions.     

Teachers across all grade levels report that meeting and getting to know their buddies is an exciting opportunity for students. “Although there are many important impacts of KDT! trips, the one that stands out the most is the friendships that are formed between the students in different schools before middle school starts,” said Jennifer Emerson, a fourth-grade teacher at Fall Creek Elementary School. “I have had many students talk about how they kept in touch with their buddy through fifth grade and then had another friend in middle school.”

According to its annual program evaluation, KDT! Ithaca’s social component appears to be effective. Of sixth-graders surveyed about their experiences with KDT! Ithaca, 94 percent said they remembered their buddies, and 77 percent said they had seen one or more of their buddies, in middle school, said IPEI President Jennifer Engel. “That had positive impact,” she said. “The outcome is a much calmer transition to middle school.”

Parents, too, recognize the positive impact the social interaction aspect of KDT! has had on their child’s school experiences. Asia Bonacci, a parent of two Fall Creek Elementary students, said her fifth-grade daughter has expressed excitement over the years about meeting a new friend and seeing the friend’s school. “The KDT! program is a great way to introduce area kids to all the wonders of living in and around Ithaca,” Bonacci said. “The buddy system, in particular, broadens their tiny elementary school experience to include other kids from all over the community—suddenly they become common citizens of a much larger world.” 
By Heather Zimar
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