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New older students join old younger ones

The senior citizens of this community are going back to school. In a project believed to be the first such in the country, the school system of this small northern Michigan town is integrating senior citizen activities into daily school life.

Not only will the senior citizens have a "Friendship Center" within the high school, but they will be encouraged to participate in all school activities.

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This fall it won't be surprising to see a student of 70 playing tuba next to a 15-year-old trombonist in the school band, a grandmother taking an older part in a school play, or senior citizens wrestling with an algebra problem side by side with high school juniors.

The school also hopes the presence of the new older students will enrich the learning for the old younger students. Retired farmers will be invited to assist with agricultural courses; retired teachers will be invited into their specialties; and home economics teachers anticipate the help of women who have had years of experience canning fruits and vegetables.

Already a retired journalist is assisting with the newspaper and yearbook, and retired teachers are helping with remedial courses.

Whether taking part in school activities, acting as lay teachers, making use of their "Friendship Center" in space provided by the school, or eating hot lunches in the cafeteria, senior citizens will have "a reason to get up and get going in the mornings," according to one of the originators of the concept, Ed Schnell, a retired business executive.

Mr. Schnell, active in community affairs since his retirement, had been concerned because existing senior citizen facilities were operating out of a church basement on a part-time basis. Interest on the part of older citizens fluctuated. Mr. Schnell took the problem to Bob Doan, director of the Harbor Springs Community Schools, last year.

The community school program here had gained wide recognition for offering an unusual array of classes to the public, from celestial navigation (Harbor Springs is a boating center in summer) and piano to academic courses and Ottawa Indian language.

Mr. Doan and Mr. Schnell hatched a plan to place the senior citizen center in the school's old library, which was being vacated for larger quarters, using adjacent offices for a nurse, social service agency representatives, and small snack shop.

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What excited the two most, however, was the idea of integrating the senior citizens into daily school life.

"In every other society older people play a vital role in the community and family. In the United States the accent is on youth," Mr. Doan, a former Peace Corps volunteer in Colombias and Micronesia, commented recently.

"In Harbor Springs we are talking about bridging the generation gap. If I learned anything overseas, it was that age is wisdom," he repeated frequently as he and Mr. Schnell escorted a visitor through the school.

Last spring preliminary steps were completed for the program.

Construction in the new senior citizen center and remodeled sections of the school are being finished. Virtually every corner of the school is becoming barrier-free -- making it possible for handicapped people to make full use of the facilities.

Although the project would not be in full swing until this fall, senior citizens were the guests of students for lunch, while touring the campus.

"The kids carried trays for some people," Mr. Doan recalled later. "They sat together. MAny students stopped in the halls to hug a grandparent or older friend. The response of the students and senior citizens was terrific."

The funds for the renovations to convert the library and offices to the senior citizen center were raised locally by the senior citizens and the Harbor Springs Kiwanis Club, and were matched by a $15,937 grant from the Area Agency on Aging, Region X of Michigan, according to Mr. Doan.

Mr. Doan and Mr. Schnell are quick to point to positive side benefits of the project.

"As school enrollment declines, the use of schools should increase," Mr. Doan commented. "We can't afford the luxury of building a school for one use only."

"Communities build senior citizen centers under pressure of 'gray power,'" he laughed. "They build them on a quiet, shady lane, put out some checkers and a bridge table, and hope they will fade away."

"Here the senior citizens will have a multimillion-dollar facility staffed with professionals in many fields," he continued, as he walked past classrooms into the gymnasium.

"The senior citizens can use all our facilities. We have dance and exercise classes they can join. They can take typing and they can bone up on academic."

Mr. Schnell added, "This is not a charity, you know. Our taxes support these schools."

The involvement of senior citizens has already made a difference to the school.

The school superintendent, Robert Hoffman, was quoted as saying last June, when the project was just an idea, that "support from senior sitizens helped tip the scales in favor of the [tax] millage" during a crucial school election.

Mr. Schnell observed, "The schools are going to be a focal point for the aging in this area."

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