For two decades, the Intergenerational Schools have been working to transform the school experience for Cleveland's children.
The Intergenerational Schools (Intergens) have deep roots in Cleveland. The first Intergenerational School opened in 2000 in what was then the Fairhill Center for the Aging in Cleveland’s Larchmere/Buckeye neighborhood under the leadership of Catherine C. Whitehouse, Ph.D., an educator and developmental psychologist; Peter J. Whitehouse, M.D. and Ph.D., a gerontologist, physician and faculty member at Case Western Reserve University; and Stephanie FallCreek, DSW, executive director at Fairhill. The school opened as a free public charter school to offer local families an innovative educational alternative to traditional public schools.
Transforming the School Experience
As a school psychologist and later a teacher, Dr. Catherine Whitehouse witnessed how the traditional lockstep educational system tended to ascribe learning disabilities to unique students, rather than adapting the teaching and learning to students’ individual development. From this experience, Dr. Catherine Whitehouse began to design a new educational model.
These founders envisioned a groundbreaking school founded on the ideas that learning is a developmental process (building on the past at an individual’s own pace) and that culture, experience and community are critical to fostering knowledge.
The school’s approach to education challenged the traditional age-based grade segregation that occurs in most schools by introducing three main tenets: multi-age classes, a literacy-focused, developmental curriculum where students move at their own pace based on mastery, and a diverse community of co-learners to support each child.
In 2000, 32 students (two 16-student classes) ranged in age from 5 to 8 years, setting the foundation for the educational model of small, multi-age classes that endures today.
Older adults interested in healthy aging partnered with students to help foster a love of books, to explore and learn together, and to serve as another caring adult to share their wisdom with this younger generation. In exchange, they enjoyed a renewed sense of purpose, acceptance and cognitive stimulation.
Learning and teaching each other side by side, both students and older adults could better understand and appreciate their individual contributions to a rich and diverse community. These fundamentals are what make the schools so unique today.
Intergenerational Across Cleveland
By 2010, the school had grown to over 200 kindergarten through eighth-grade students and was the recipient of several local, state, and national awards for its innovative and effective educational model.
In 2011, as a response to demand from a group of activist parents on Cleveland’s west-side, Near West Intergenerational School opened on the lower level of the Cleveland Metropolitan School District’s Garret Morgan School of Science in the Ohio City neighborhood.
As part of the newly adopted Cleveland Plan, this was the first charter-district partnership to co-locate a charter and a district school in the same building. By 2013, the schools were serving more than 400 students and collaborating with more than 30 organizations to foster multi-age, community-based learning opportunities.
Again, a neighborhood sought to replicate the school model, and Lakeshore Intergenerational School opened in Cleveland’s Collinwood neighborhood in 2014. Now all three schools serve almost 750 students.
In 2010, the Intergens collaborated to create the Breakthrough Schools charter management organization to help support its administrative and fundraising efforts. In 2017, the Intergens amicably separated from Breakthrough to focus deeper on their unique mission as an independent network.
Moving Forward Together
To mark this new chapter for the Intergens, the network established a new fundraising organization, Friends of the Intergenerational Schools, and embarked on a collaborative strategic planning process to realign its mission, vision, values and goals as an independent network of three schools.
The result of this comprehensive evaluation was Moving Forward Together, a three-year strategic plan developed by a team of staff, board, parents, and committee members.
As the Intergenerational Schools approach the original school’s 20th anniversary, the network is better positioned than ever to build and deepen connections across generations and strengthen the Cleveland communities they call home.