Electronic Magazine of Multicultural Education

FALL 2000     http://www.eastern.edu/publications/emme    Vol. 2, No. 2

Theme: Cross-Cultural Partnership

| This Issue | Articles | Instructional Ideas | Open Forum | Reviews | Contributors |
| Caruso | Cozza and Mbugua | Hallen | Hansell | Kennett | Lukiv |


Putting Contact Theory Into Practice:
Using The PARTNERS Program to Develop Intercultural Competence

Linda Hansell
University of Pennsylvania

Abstract: This paper describes an intergroup relations/multicultural education program model which successfully applies the elements of Allport’s "contact theory" and promotes skills of intercultural competence in its elementary and middle school student participants. The PARTNERS Program is an urban-suburban school partnership program which integrates and lends credence to the conditions of contact theory. The elements of contact theory and intercultural competence are discussed and sample program activities are described.

The PARTNERS Program Model
Allport’s Contact Theory and Beyond
Intercultural Competence
Some Fruits of the PARTNERS Program

    In the field of Intergroup Relations, much has been written about Allport’s "contact theory," but one does not read much about actual practical applications of the theory, which try to improve relations between groups. In fact, Hewstone and Johnston (1992) , in a comprehensive article on intergroup relations, point out that "[m]ost of the work on intergroup contact and intergroup behavior has actually taken place without there being any direct contact between the protagonists..." (p. 264)  Similarly, in the field of multicultural education, the focus seems to be on exposing students to different cultures through literature and cultural fairs, rather than through planned interactions between diverse groups of students. [paragraph 1]

    A model program exists in Philadelphia, building on the elements of both contact theory and intercultural competence theory and successfully bringing students of different racial, cultural, and socio-economic backgrounds together to learn from and with each other. By drawing on the tenets and conditions of these two theoretical approaches to inter-group contact, the PARTNERS Program, over the past ten years, has enabled nearly 12,000 elementary and middle school students to engage in positive cross-cultural experiences with same-age peers across city-suburban, racial and cultural boundaries. [paragraph 2]

    The PARTNERS Program pairs first through eighth-grade classes from Philadelphia public schools with their suburban school counterparts to jointly pursue year-long academic activities and bridge-building social interaction. The objectives of the PARTNERS Program are:

 to promote the development of intercultural competence and appreciation of diversity among elementary and middle school students in both urban and suburban schools;
to reduce the isolation and enhance racial relations between urban and suburban students by involving them in positive, ongoing learning experiences together; and
to enable students to successfully negotiate cultural differences and to understand diverse perspectives. [paragraph 3]

    Allport wrote that "contact must reach below the surface in order to be effective in altering prejudice. Only the type of contact that leads people to do things together is likely to result in changed attitudes" (Allport, 1958). The PARTNERS Program is a program which gives elementary and middle students the opportunity to reach below the surface and make friends with peers from other backgrounds through doing collaborative academic and social activities together, integrating the critical elements of Allport’s contact theory and the intercultural competence theory. [paragraph 4]

The PARTNERS Program Model

    Classes from city public schools and suburban schools are paired to form year-long cross-cultural academic and social partnerships. The PARTNERS Program engages the paired elementary and middle school students in creative, curriculum-centered projects which the students work on together throughout the year. Of the 1,800 students who participate each year, half are minority students attending Philadelphia public schools (70% of this population African-American, 10% Hispanic, and 20% Asian respectively); and half are attending surrounding suburban schools (95% of this population white and 5% minority students). Urban students largely come from low-income or working-class households.  The program consists of the following key elements. [paragraph 5]

    • Monthly Paired-Class Visits. Students from the paired classes visit each other for one day each month, alternating between the Philadelphia school and the suburban school. At each visit the paired students engage in collaborative, hands-on curricular lessons and human relations activities that the teachers from both schools have prepared jointly. [paragraph 6]

    • Pen-pal letter writing. The students also exchange pen-pal letters every month with their urban or suburban partners, in between their visits. [paragraph 7]

    • Outdoor Team-Building Days. Each urban-suburban class pair spends a day engaged in outdoor team-building activities at an area camp, during which the city and suburban partners work and play together in solving group challenge activities which develop cooperation, communication and group problem-solving skills. [paragraph 8]

    • Reflection and Discussion. Students have ongoing opportunities and encouragement to express their reactions to their partnership experience in class discussions and journal writing exercises, and the older students are guided to examine and reflect on their experiences in the context of the larger, often unspoken issues of race and racism, economic disparities, inequality, and violence. [paragraph 9]

    • Parent Involvement. An important component of the PARTNERS Program is parental involvement. Parents are involved in the program on several levels: attending the monthly class visits at their child’s school or at the partner school, assisting with activities, chaperoning field trips, providing refreshments, at partnership events, and serving on the PARTNERS Program Advisory Board. Hundreds of parents volunteer with the program each year. [paragraph 10]

    • Monthly Teacher Workshops. PARTNERS teachers participate in a series of professional development workshops which take place once a month after school. These workshop sessions engage the teachers from the urban and suburban school districts in lively and substantive discussions on diversity issues, race relations, cultural differences, and cross-cultural communication, and in sharing successful program activities. [paragraph 11]

Allport’s Contact Theory and Beyond

    Allport delineated the conditions necessary for effective intergroup connection. These conditions are:  

the groups must come together with equal status; 
they must engage in cooperative interaction; 
they must work together toward common goals;
there must institutional supports and sanctions for the interaction; and 
there must be frequent contacts (not just a one-time interaction). [paragraph 12]

    In recent years, other elements which lead to successful intergroup encounters have been added to Allport’s formulation of contact theory. Pettigrew (1998) mentions several of them which are central to the PARTNERS Program model: the duration of the contact and  friendship potential, empathy, and intimacy. [paragraph 13]


    It is not surprising to learn that successful intergroup contact requires repeated contact over a period of time. Bringing participants together for one-time interactions does not result in long-term change in attitudes, awareness, or knowledge. Repeated contact over a period of time is necessary for comfort levels, trust, and friendships to build. Pettigrew writes, "Optimal intergroup contact requires time for cross-group friendships to develop. Past work has focused chiefly on short-term intergroup contact--the very condition that Sherif’s (1966) Robbers Cave field experiment found minimally effective. Once we adopt a long-term perspective that allows cross-group friendship to develop...we can expect striking results" (p. 7). In the PARTNERS Program, the partnered students see each other once a month over a full school-year period, which provides the necessary frequency and duration of contact to have an impact. [paragraph 14]

Friendship Potential, Empathy, and Intimacy

    Pettigrew also writes that friendship potential, empathy, and intimacy are critical elements of successful intergroup relations efforts:

The power of cross-group friendship to reduce prejudice and generalize to other outgroups demands [an additional] condition for the contact hypothesis: The contact situation must provide the participants with the opportunity to become friends. Such opportunity implies close interaction that would make self-disclosure and other friendship-developing mechanisms possible. It also implies the potential for extensive and repeated contact in a variety of social contexts....  These ... results [from several studies] suggest that "friendship potential" is an essential, not merely facilitating, condition for positive intergroup contact effects that generalize. (p. 7) [paragraph 15]

   Friendship potential is at the heart of the PARTNERS Program model. Students are paired with one or two students of their age from the partner school-- generally from a different racial or cultural background-- and with the "partners" they engage in a wide variety of activities (academic, social, physical, musical, etc.)  over the course of the year. In addition, they write to and receive letters from their partner(s) throughout the year, which also serves to develop the friendship. [paragraph 16]

An Additional Element: Geographic Focus

    Evidence from the PARTNERS Program over ten years suggests that another element be added to Allport's and Pettigrew’s conditions that enhance intergroup relations outcomes: connections should be developed not only to the people in the other group but to their geographic "place" as well. In the context of the PARTNERS Program, students have developed a sense of connection to their partner school and community as well as to their partners. [paragraph 17]

    This sense of connection to a community is fostered in several ways in the implementation of the PARTNERS Program. The first is through the "PARTNERS welcome." At the first visit at each school, the hosting teacher and students provide a "PARTNERS welcome" for their visiting partners, which consists of a tour of the school and information about the school and the neighborhood. Most public schools in Philadelphia are named after a person, such as Samuel B. Huey, John B. Kelly, Francis Scott Key, etc. The visiting partners are taught about the person the school is named for, why the school is named for that person, and special features of the school, both physical and programmatic.  The same information is provided about the suburban school when the city students have their first visit there. Since every school has special programs, subjects, or features which the children feel proud to share, this information sharing reinforces the equal-status contact between the city and suburban students in the partnership, while it also builds a sense of connection to the school and community.1 [paragraph 18]

    A second component of identifying with a particular place involves the activities that the partnered students engage in together. Often the students will map their respective communities, work on a community resources inventory in which they examine the cultural, educational, health, recreational, and commercial resources of both neighborhoods, city and suburban, and then create an "ideal community" that draws on the assets of the city and suburbs. Another recent PARTNERS activity integrated a math lesson with a neighborhood inventory and scavenger hunt. [paragraph 19]


Intercultural Competence

    The intercultural competence theory originated from the fields of International Education and International Studies, but its application is currently far reaching to intercultural/multicultural encounters within a particular country or environment. We live in an increasingly complex and multicultural society, and our success as productive adults and contributing citizens depends on our ability to successfully negotiate cultural differences and to appreciate diverse perspectives. [paragraph 20]

    Fantini (2000) acknowledges the importance of intercultural competence in all sectors of American society:

In countries where ethnic diversity is on the rise, successful relationships with friends, neighbors and intercultural partners depend on an ability to deal with differences in a positive manner. From the arena of international business to the intimacy of family life, there is an increasing need to be able to deal effectively and appropriately with diversity, whether ethnic, racial, religious, or cultural. (p. 26) [paragraph 21]

    One’s ability to deal effectively and appropriately with diversity is referred to as intercultural competence. Fantini elaborated on this ability as "1) the ability to develop and maintain relationships, 2) the ability to communicate effectively and appropriately with minimal loss and distortion, and 3) the ability to attain compliance and obtain cooperation with others" (p. 27). To develop this ability one needs to gain appropriate skills, knowledge, awareness and attitude. [paragraph 22]

Intercultural Competence and the PARTNERS Program

    The principles of the intercultural competence theory are central to the mission of the PARTNERS Program. In the context of the program’s work of helping elementary and middle school students learn to successfully navigate and appreciate cultural differences, we have expanded on the definition of intercultural competence given above. The following is a list of intercultural competence competencies that the PARTNERS Program seeks to develop in program participants:

the ability to comfortably interact with people of different backgrounds;
the ability to view the world from multiple perspectives;
the ability to walk in other people’s shoes;
the ability to see what’s on the inside of a person, getting beyond the outside and surface differences and characteristics;
the ability to see an individual as an individual, not only as a member of a group;
the ability to create and be part of a safe environment where everyone is accepted;
the ability to see commonalties;
the ability to work effectively as part of a team;
awareness of self and self-identity; and
the ability to listen. [paragraph 23]

    While living or working in another country is perhaps the most powerful way to develop intercultural competence, there are myriad opportunities for Americans to develop these skills without leaving the country, due to the multicultural makeup of the American population. The PARTNERS Program takes advantage of this opportunity. By pairing students from divergent backgrounds for year-long partnerships, based on Allport’s conditions of equal-status contact, cooperative interaction, common goals, frequent contact, and institutional support and sanctions, the PARTNERS Program teaches children the skills and competencies of intercultural competence. The program does this by integrating academic skills and themes from the curriculum with the elements of intercultural competence. As shown in the Venn diagram below, PARTNERS activities lie in the intersection of these two domains.

Examples of this integration are illustrated in the following PARTNERS activity descriptions. [paragraph 24]

The Butterfly Garden: Students from the Lingelbach School in Philadelphia and Round Meadow School in Hatboro, PA took part in a curricular program entitled "Magical Migrating Monarchs." This program provided them with the opportunity to learn all about the monarch butterfly: its life cycle, migration cycle and special habitat needs. Over a period of weeks students in both classrooms raised butterflies from eggs and in the process were able to observe the metamorphosis that occurs during the four stages of the Monarch's life cycle. These PARTNERS classes also designed and planted an outdoor butterfly garden at Stapeley Hall, a home for senior citizens. The garden was composed of the perennial plants and flowers needed to sustain the monarch butterfly. The highlight of this exciting project came in June at the butterfly release party when PARTNERS students joined with seniors to release the monarchs they had raised into the garden habitat that they had created. [paragraph 25]

    While studying and observing the various stages of the monarch butterfly’s life from egg to caterpillar to cocoon to butterfly, the students discussed and wrote in their journals about the ways in which people sometimes build cocoons or walls around themselves to protect themselves, and the ways in which people are able to transform themselves and their ideas and attitudes through exposure to new and different people and places. This lesson also provided a perfect introduction to the intercultural competence concepts of seeing the world from different perspectives and valuing what’s on the inside. [paragraph 26]

Abuela’s Weave: PARTNERS teacher Angela Williams created the following PARTNERS lesson for her 4th grade students from the K.D. Markley School in Great Valley School District and their Philadelphia partners from Farrell School. Abuela’s Weave (Castenada, 1995) is a book about a Guatemalan girl named Esperanza and her abuela (grandmother in Spanish). Esperanza helps her grandmother create a Guatemalan tapestry that outshines machine-made goods. The grandmother has a disfiguring birthmark on her face, and is afraid people will not buy her weavings if they see her. When Esperanza takes the beautiful weavings to the market, they are all purchased and widely admired. [paragraph 27]

After reading Abuela’s Weave together, the students created woven paper tapestries that told their own story, and shared their tapestry with their partner. They told their story from the colors used in their tapestry.

Weaving Color Guide

blue = have sister(s) fuchsia = have brother(s) orange = no brothers or sisters
purple = pets yellow = no pets  
white = like sports dark orange = enjoys books  
red = lives in a house green = lives in an apartment  

  [paragraph 28]

    Literature-based lessons such as these allow students to journey into other people’s worlds and walk in other people’s shoes. This wonderful book and follow-up activity also help children learn see the world from multiple perspectives and reinforce the intercultural competence concept that one’s character and abilities are more important than physical appearance and differences. [paragraph 29]

Non-Judgment Activity: Students from Barbara Buchanan-Hollish’s class at Cold Spring Elementary School in Upper Moreland School District engaged in the following lesson with their partners from the Huey School in Philadelphia. The students read together the book What Kind of Baby-sitter Is This? (Johnson, 1991). It is a book about a child who does not want to spend time with a new baby-sitter because he assumes she does not like the things he likes, but he comes to find out otherwise. After the students had gone back to their respective schools, they were given a sheet with the following questions on it, relating to their partner. 

When I first saw __________ I thought he/she was __________. Now that I know

him/her I know that he/she is __________. When I meet new people again I will




[paragraph 30]

    This activity helps children realize that pre-judgments or assumptions made about other people can often be wrong. Activities such as these, done in the context of contact theory, help children develop the skills, knowledge, attitudes, awareness, and sensitivity that constitute intercultural competence. [paragraph 31] 

Some Fruits of the PARTNERS Program

    For the past 10 years the PARTNERS program staff have witnessed many positive changes and growth in participating children and adults.  The following two anecdotes demonstrate the increased awareness and positive attitudes towards others of different backgrounds and other communities that the PARTNERS Program fostered in participants. [paragraph 32]

Caring Connections

    During the 1996-97 school year, students from the Cold Spring School in Willow Grove, PA were partnered with students from the Lea School in Philadelphia. The following year, there was a fire in an apartment house near the Lea School around Christmas time which displaced several families. The Cold Spring students heard about the fire on the television news, and were concerned about the residents’ health and well-being, knowing it was in the Lea School neighborhood. The students took it upon themselves to collect clothes, toys, and food for the families who were displaced by the fire. They went with their teacher to deliver the collected items to these families with whom they felt a connection due to their partnership experience from the previous year. As the students put it, "That is our partner school."  [paragraph 33]

Feeling Part of Another Community

    In the 1998-99 school year, PARTNERS students from the Lingelbach School in the Germantown section of Philadelphia and Gladwyne Elementary School in Lower Merion Township worked together to create and paint a large mural called "The Bridge of Friendship" near the Lingelbach School. Working together closely on the mural project over the course of the year created strong bonds among the African-American city students and the predominantly white suburban students and strong sense of connection to the Lingelbach community where the mural was painted. Since the mural was completed, several Gladwyne families have brought out-of-town visitors to show the mural in the city that the children worked on, visiting a part of the city that suburbanites would not normally visit. Because of "The Bridge of Friendship" the Germantown community has become an extension of the Gladwyne community and vice versa. [paragraph 34]

    These anecdotes demonstrate the power of several elements of contact theory discussed here--cooperative interaction, working toward common goals, friendship, empathy, and geographic focus--in bringing about positive intergroup relations outcomes. The evidence from the field in ten years of implementing the PARTNERS Program shows that the tenets of contact theory, when implemented in a strategic and comprehensive way, are indeed necessary and effective in bringing about these outcomes. [paragraph 35]


1. One might assume that the suburban schools have much more in the way of special features than the city schools, but that is not always the case.  Within the Philadelphia schools that participate in the PARTNERS Program there exist many features and programs that the partnered suburban schools do not have, including a school zoo, elevators, computers labs, and four-story buildings, all of which are exciting and "cool" to the visiting suburban partners.


Allport, G. (1958). The nature of prejudice. Garden City, NY: Doubleday.

Castaneda, O. S. (1995). Abuela's Weave. New York: Lee and Low Books.

Fantini, A. (2000). A central concern: Developing intercultural competence. In About Our Institution, SIT Occasional Papers Series, Inaugural Issue (pp. 25-33). Brattleboro, VT: World Learning. 

Hewstone, M. and Johnston, L. (1992). Subtyping and the perceived typicality of disconfirming group members. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 28 (4), 28-31.

Johnson, D. (1991). What kind of baby-sitter is this? New York: Simon and Schuster Children's.

Pettigrew, T. F. (1998). Intergroup contact theory." Annual Review of Psychology [online] 49, <Available: IMAP://imap.gse.upenn.edu?fetch>UID>IINBOX>3704>.

Linda Hansell, Ph. D.,
is the Executive Director and founder of the PARTNERS Program, and a Lecturer at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education. She has worked in both public and private school settings. 

Write to the Author

Recommended Citation in the APA Style

Hansell, L. (2000). Putting contact theory into practice: Using the PARTNERS program to develop intercultural competence. Electronic Magazine of Multicultural Education [online], 2(2),  35 paragraphs. <Available: http://www.eastern.edu/publications/emme/2000fall/hansell.html> [your access year, month date]


Editor: Heewon Chang, Ph. D.
Assistant Editors:
Anna Rose and Francoise Aimée Jean-Louis

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