ROCHESTER — The room went from muted conversation to a whirlwind of activity in seconds.
And so began another day for the Generation Two program at Henry Longfellow School No. 36 with adult volunteers working one on one with first-graders.
Last year, the program welcomed new volunteers from the Rochester Police Department. The officers initially dressed in civilian clothing so the young elementary students could get to know them as people first and police second, explained Inger Williams, the program coordinator at School 36.
Some of the officers, such as Amy Bauer, who was volunteering on Oct. 31, continued with that method this year. Once she is paired with the same students for awhile, Bauer said that she will begin coming to the school in uniform.
Williams said that the children love having an officer as a new friend.
"It’s a very nice relationship," she said.
One of those students likely to continue working with Bauer this year is Sabrina Pagan. When she saw Bauer, Sabrina walked over to a book shelf that holds unfinished projects from the previous week and brought it over to work at a table. Denali Castro also joined the pair and broke out colorful blocks to build with as well as a "Guess Who" game.
Denali said that working with Bauer is fun.
"We get to do cool things," she said. "I like to do buildings. … She’s fun. She lets us do stuff that we like."
Having children be in charge of their playtime during the school day is one of the fundamental elements of the program, explained Dr. Bruce Gilberg, who created Generation Two more than a decade ago as his post-doctoral work at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. Gilberg is a child and clinical psychologist.
"Play is the cornerstone to their ability and investigative capacity," he said to volunteers during an Oct. 21 training session. "It’s experimental, unpredictable and it’s fun. The notion of play is for a child to use objects … to play out their fantasies, their interpretation of what the world means."
And by letting the children take the initiative as they play, the adult is building trust with the child as well, he added.
"We believe that the relationship between two human beings is the foundation for learning," he said. "That is what G2 is all about."
And to the outside observer, the children’s love of their "G2" sessions is obvious.
After half an hour passed during an Oct. 21 afternoon session, Williams stood and said, "Guess what?" And the children shouted, "Don’t say it!" as she told them it was time to clean up. And almost as quickly as the tornado of energy arrived, it subsided and the room was quiet again as the volunteers sat and waited for the next group of students.
Providing a place where children get their energy out and have an adult’s undivided attention also helps the Generation Two program continue expanding, Gilberg said.
He spoke about the program to area superintendents 11 years ago and the Fairport school district immediately signed on, Gilberg said. Two years later, Rochester signed on for School 36. Currently, Generation Two mentors work with primary-grade students in four city elementary schools and four Fairport elementary schools.
Last year, Rochester Police Department officers joined the program as volunteers after Gilberg spoke to Police Chief James Sheppard. The chief recently announced that he will retire at the end of this year.
"I went to the chief and said, ‘How about your officers get to know kids before arresting them?’" Gilberg remarked. "It took him two seconds (to sign on). He gets it. Community policing has as its cornerstone what we put in practice in G2: mutual respect and empathy."
Building trust and partnerships with the city’s younger generation is at the heart of the department’s "Policing in the Spirit of Service," explained Sgt. Elena Correia, a department spokeswoman.
"Anytime you can engage children at such a young age and make positive contacts, it can have lasting effects down the road," she said.
That includes showing the students that they, too, can become officers, noted Melinda Mroz, G2’s program director, who remembers a girl who thought that officers were only men when she met one of the female officer volunteers.
"The kids we’re working with, they are old enough, (they) can make up their own minds about people based on their own experiences in school and also young enough that they’re not succumbing to peer pressure and believing things their friends say about people," Mroz added.
The program also shows the children the "human side" of officers, who help them understand that the police aim to provide safety and security to their neighborhoods, Correia said.
"What they see and hear third party can be completely different than one-on-one interactions," she noted. "(With Generation Two) you can humanize the relationship … and the students can see police officers in a different light, building relationships and changing perceptions."
Changing those perceptions goes for the officers as well, with a few more of them volunteering this year for a total of 16 from 12, Correia said.
"We, too, can be cynical," she said. "And it’s so refreshing to sit there and interact with these kids and have fun with them."
During one of the half-hour sessions on Halloween, Bauer helped a student carefully remove the backing on stickers as the two decorated a giant white ghost with skeletons and black cats. One of the department’s initial volunteers, Bauer returned to work with the kids this fall, she said.
"I liked working with the kids," she said. "I like them when they’re little and not quite as influenced as the older ones we deal with on a daily basis … before the outside world influences them too much."
The lack of a negative view of police is evident by the students who wave excitedly at Officer Jim Perry, who also is volunteering for a second year and came dressed in uniform right away this fall. But he remembers the day he came in uniform last year after volunteering for several weeks in plain clothes, Perry said.
"It was kind of neat, their reactions," he said. "They came to the door and said, ‘Oh, police!’ with big smiles on their faces. … It’s fun to see their faces when they come to the door. I’m happy to be here."