Pen pal program helps Mich. students find similarities

Lauren Slagter
Ann Arbor News

Chelsea — High school freshman Merrick Hopkins said it was kind of awkward the first time he sat down to write a letter to Maegan Ford.

Hopkins is a student at West Side Academy, part of Detroit Public Schools Community District. He wasn’t sure what he had in common with Ford, who’s a freshman at Chelsea High School.

“I told her some of the things I like,” Hopkins said. “It was basically how was your week going, what’s your favorite color, what books do you like to read, what’s your favorite movie, stuff like that.”

Hopkins and Ford continued exchanging letters every other week this school year as part of a pen pal program between the two high schools. As they got to know each other, Ford said they found common ground.

“It was cool to know other people’s perspectives on high school when we go to different places,” Ford said. “It actually surprised me how alike we were. I guess it wasn’t as different as I thought it would be. The stories you hear about Detroit aren’t always as flattering as you think, but they’re just like us.”

On May 17, Hopkins and Ford met in person for the first time along with the 140 other students involved the pen pal program. West Side Academy students and staff spent a few hours at Chelsea School District’s Washington Street Education Center for a “Breaking Barriers” event that included games, dancing and conversation about what students learned from exchanging letters.

It took a little while for the students from each school to mingle, but eventually music brought them together on the dance floor.

“I think on both sides, they learned that we’re not actually that different,” West Side Academy teacher Ashley Monteleone said of the pen pal program. “At a time when things are incredibly divisive in our country and we believe certain things about certain individuals, this was an eye-opening experience. … They became friends.”

Monteleone worked with Chelsea High School teacher Adam Schilt to coordinate the pen pal program this school year. Schilt taught at West Side Academy for two years before taking a position at Chelsea High School this school year, and he noticed differences in the resources available to students at each school.

Of Chelsea High School’s 830 students, more than 95 percent graduate on time and about 8 percent are economically disadvantaged.

West Side Academy offers a credit recovery program for high schoolers who have fallen behind in traditional high schools. Just over one-third of West Side’s 480 students graduate on time, and about 88 percent of the student body is economically disadvantaged.

Schilt thought it would be beneficial for the students with different backgrounds to learn more about their peers who attend school 53 miles away.

“A lot of the kids still have all of their letters in their binders. It’s really cool to see,” Schilt said. “We do ‘Friday circles’ in my classroom where we talk about the highs and lows of the week, and it was amazing to see every week how many kids said, ‘My high of the entire week in everything I did was writing to my pen pal.’ They’ve just been really into the program.”

After time for games and dancing on Wednesday, students gathered in small groups and student leaders facilitated conversations where the teens shared more about themselves. A grant from the Chelsea Education Foundation provided lunch and other supplies for the “Breaking Barriers” event.

In the group led by West Side student Emily Glover and Chelsea student Riley Davis, the teens talked about their typical school day routine, family, pets and sports.

When it came time to share why they’re proud of where they’re from, the Chelsea students said their families’ roots in the area and the small town’s support system.

Glover, who’s originally from Chicago, talked about the sense of community she felt there and the foods she enjoyed, and another West Side student said he’s proud to be a true Detroit native born in the city.

Monteleone saw her students learn to enjoy writing through the pen pal program, and Schilt hopes to continue the program next school year and potentially involve more schools.

“When we first started writing, we would get like a sentence or two sentences, maybe a paragraph,” Monteleone said. “Now I have kids who are reluctant learners who don’t want to do other things in my class, but they will do front and back pages of writing to their pen pals because it means so much to them.”