It's not a typical choice for the average fraternity guy, but University of Hartford senior Brad Landry is sitting cross-legged on the floor in an elementary-school classroom, picture book open, reading to a gaggle of wide-eyed first-graders.
"OK, who has read this before?" he asks the eager youngsters, who keep scooting closer, wedging in around him. Hands shoot up. But before he can begin, one little boy blurts out a question to the athletic-looking Mr. Landry: "Excuse me, are you a superstar?"
"No," Landry says, smiling, without missing a beat, "I'm a super student." He then launches into the story - but his point is well made: The children at this public K-5 school on a private university campus are coming to understand that the big guys and girls who visit their classes every day are students and learners just like themselves.
Role modeling is a key educational feature at the new University of Hartford Magnet School. In this unusual partnership between a private university and a K-5 public school, visiting university faculty and students play a significant educational role alongside the school's master teachers and principal.
There are other partnerships between public schools and universities. But some here believe this could be the first time a public grade school has been built on a private university campus.
It is a daring experiment based on the premise that a tight proximity of grade school and university can make a big difference for students in both, says Cheryl Kloczko, the magnet school's energetic principal.
"You have the frat boys offering to be reading buddies with the first-graders and the education majors becoming pen pals with our children," she says. "We have professors teaming with our teachers. It's a wonderful combination we believe will yield a better education for all students."
It's early yet, she admits. The school only just opened its doors in September. But so far, seven fraternities, including Sigma Epsilon Alpha, which Landry belongs to, have signed up to read aloud or donate books to the school library.
Not to be outdone, the education majors trot down the hill each day from their cluster of university buildings to help out in the K-5 school as student teachers. So do a clutch of engineering students, dancers, and aspiring actors who perform, instruct - and learn.
Music-education majors have also begun visiting daily to teach trombone, tuba, violin, and viola in the afternoon. Mornings and afternoons, professors can be seen chatting in halls and offices with the K-12 teachers.
Some university and grade-school classes are even beginning to intertwine.
Ann Courtney, an associate professor of education, teaches a theory class on writing and reading development in young children. That class of 14 university students became pen pals with Mary Ann Montano's 16 first-graders.
"My kids are just learning how to write," Ms. Montano reports. "I wouldn't normally ask them to write a letter. At first it was 'Hi, I like you.' But they've progressed to full length. And by analyzing those letters, and writing back, [Professor Courtney's] students are understanding how my kids are learning to write."
Dana Connolly, a junior majoring in education, was a pen pal to David Olechua. Sitting side by side for a quick interview, both said they liked the experience and would do it again. David got his pen pal's home address for future correspondence.
In October, Ms. Connolly says, David wrote just the first and last letters of a word, like "w" and "t" for "wait." Now he is putting vowels between those letters.
"It was great to actually see him learning to do exactly what we were learning about in class," she says.
Indeed, for Courtney, the pen-pal experiment has been the perfect marriage of theory and practice at the university level. Her final assignment was for her students to take all their pen-pal letters and analyze them for content, quantity, and quality, and place the child in a development stage.
"They were hearing the theory from me in the college classroom, but this allowed them to track the progress the child made," she says. "It was a very reflective process that made my own students very aware of how much growth and development had occurred in a very brief time."
Another on-the-fly experiment occurred when Courtney and Montano decided to swap classes for a day. Montano taught the university class, Courtney the first-graders. Sometimes university professors disdain teaching at the K-12 level. Not in this case, however.
"We both looked at each other at lunch and said the same thing - 'Oh, your job is so hard,' " Courtney says.
This partnership is unusual in another significant way that pleases Courtney and her education-faculty colleagues. It is the first school designed around a "multiple intelligences" curriculum, based on a theory of learning pioneered by Harvard University Professor Howard Gardner, officials here say.
Dr. Gardner - who is content to have schools implement his ideas as they see fit, and did not act as a consultant to this effort - has expounded eight such intelligences so far: linguistic, bodily/kinesthetic, naturalist, musical, spatial, logical/mathematical, interpersonal, and intrapersonal.
What this often means in practice is that instead of guiding students with a traditional paper-and-pencil abstract approach to learning, teachers emphasize and allow students to explore "other intelligences" or ways of learning that may come more naturally to them.
The teachers, for instance, may sing about what they're doing as they interact with students in projects. Children don't stay at their desks, but often are physically involved with a project. There are built-in electronic chalk boards or white boards in nearly every classroom. Students can put together complex puzzles by dragging a visual object across the screen with their fingers - or visit a teaching website.
The University of Hartford Magnet School has to meet state standards, but it is trying to enhance the ability of students to reach those goals through innovative approaches to learning. In many ways, it appears to run counter to the current trend toward standardization in the classroom.
Sara Walker, another first-grade teacher, is working with several teaching assistants, including Brie Rickman, a University of Hartford education student. Together on a December morning, they conduct an exercise to explore ideas through movement, spatial relationships, and personal connections.
About a dozen children sit in a rough circle, packed side by side onto a sheet of white paper spread on the floor. Each clutches photocopies of Earth viewed from space. Then Ms. Walker snips the paper around them so they can see how they fit on an approximation of the earth. They all get off the circular paper, help lift it onto a low table. Armed with paintbrushes, they liberally apply blues and greens to their own version of Earth.
When the paint starts to fly, one neatly dressed parent volunteer excuses herself for the day. Learning has gotten a tad too messy. But Walker takes note when Ms. Rickman doesn't hesitate to roll up her sleeves and plunge in.
"These student teachers who come down from the university seem to have a real vested interest in the kids," Walker says. "You see Brie there with the paint all on her. Well, it might seem obvious, but what's important is that the college kids are talking, reading, interacting with them. They don't talk down to kids like some adults do. They respect the children for who they are."
Rickman has thoughts on the matter, too: "I think there is a dynamic with the university that makes a difference in the teaching," she says. "We've had [university] dancers come, and it's inspiring to them. I had a second-grade girl who was taking ballet say to me, 'Wow, if I work hard, I could do that.' "
Kathleen Goodrich, an assistant professor at The Hartt School, the University of Hartford's music school, uses funding from the Knight Foundation for an after-school string-instrument program involving more than 60 elementary school students from the Hartford area.
All of her undergraduate music-education string students go to the magnet school twice a week after school, she says. They observe her teaching, and then they teach the children in smaller groups.
"In the past here, and at many universities, these kids would come in as freshmen and go through all this theory, but they never really had experience with children," she says. "This way they begin as freshmen, so by the time they are seniors, they really will have a good understanding of what it means to be a music teacher."
Several research projects are also in the works, some of them using the special observation booths built into the school so that student and teacher interaction can be viewed without affecting a class.
But it's the nexus of educational forces that most impresses Regina Miller, a professor of education at the University of Hartford. "You only need to walk into the school at arrival or dismissal time, and you see parents, children, teachers, and university people all connecting and interacting," she says. "It doesn't get much better than that.... It just feels good and right."
It took a lot of hard work to make this dream happen. The University of Hartford Magnet School was 10 years in the making, with the first meetings held between faculty, parents, and proponents in 1991.
Initially, the idea was to reduce Hartford's racial isolation by planting an innovative school on the Connecticut campus that would draw from surrounding communities. But the complexity was daunting.
"We thought initially we'd have it up and running by 1993 or 1994," says Madeline McKernan, who is the school's all-purpose coordinator. The project soon faltered, she says, as key proponents left the university.
But it was revived in the wake of a landmark desegregation court case that mandated that urban Hartford students no longer be isolated. That got no fewer than seven towns involved. The complexity grew as lawyers from the cities, state, county, school district, and university all became involved.
At a critical make-or-break juncture, however, the university's then-new president, Walter Harrison, put some muscle into the project. The construction funding was approved, and the university leased the site to the school for a dollar a year.
"The fundamental difference is that this school is part of our university," Dr. Harrison says. "We've been sending our students out into the community [as student teachers] for years. Now the community is sending their kids to us. I think it's an energizing force for our campus to have little third- and fourth-graders around."
He recalls the excitement at one meeting for parents and students when the go-ahead for the $21.5 million, 76,000 square-foot facility was announced. A first-grader shouted, "I'm coming to the university next year."
Even before the building went up, the project was helping educate university students. Robert Celmer, an engineering professor, had his students create three-dimensional models of the school's auditorium and meeting place called the "Agora."
What they found was that the architect's plan for a curved wall at the rear of the room would create an unwanted echo effect. Discussion ensued. More testing. Finally, the architect adapted a stair-step approach to the rear wall with an acoustic baffle system designed by the students.
The changes have made it easy for a single teacher to speak softly and still be heard by several hundred children who begin each day with and singing and exercises in the Agora each day.