Putting pen to paper the old-fashioned way, St. Monica School sixth-graders are writing letters across city and district boundaries. The pen pal exchange is an unlikely one, between a private Catholic classroom and second-graders at a Renton public school, Cascade Elementary.
The program, in its fifth year, was formed out of a friendship between two teachers: Beth Schustek and Patrice Perrault, who graduated together with master’s degrees from Lesley University.
“Our populations are so different,” said Schustek, whose 30 sixth-graders spend an hour every three to five weeks to share their letters and to write. “We work a lot on audience and what we do say, so it becomes a good lesson not just in communication, but in writing, awareness of your community, and so on.”
For the second-graders, the exercise teaches them friendly communication, how to be inquisitive and how to answer questions, said Perrault, who has a class of 20 students at Cascade Elementary. It is also an opportunity for friendship and role modeling. Students who have moved on to higher grades are still keeping in touch with their pen pals, according to both teachers.
“A lot of the kids in my classroom don’t necessarily come from the best home life, or need a little bit of extra support, and that is what these pen pals offer them — just having another friend and someone who can talk to them about things,” said Perrault.
The letters explore such subjects as family life, favorite things and what school is like — even down to St. Monica’s uniforms, but not religion, said Perrault.
“We tell [Schustek’s] kids not to bring up religion because at public school we don’t talk about that at all,” Perrault said.
Avoiding the subject of religion proves to be something of a sacrifice on St. Monica’s part.
“When it comes to Christmas time, and it’s a big event for us, that’s a challenge,” Schustek said.
Another challenge presents itself with matching up children — some of whom have two pen pals — so that no one is left out.
“We have to be careful that we pair up kids … academically; if I have a student who struggles, that we pair them with someone who does not,” said Perrault.
But the relationship between the classes is more than ink and paper. The classes set aside whole days to spend time together. In May, Schustek’s sixth-graders will bring a gift of art supplies to Perrault’s class and work on an art project. In previous years, they have donated more than 100 books. And the second-graders give back.
“The kids make our students presents when we visit. They always feel like they have to give in return,” said Schustek.