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School is 'like a family'

By KENNY CHING

Staff writer

A small, dark-skinned girl at Green Gables Elementary School sees her principal, runs toward her and throws her arms around her neck for a hug.

Diane Holt says that when she became principal, she immediately disspelled any notion that students should fear her.

“I’m not their enemy,” she says while taking a visitor on a tour of the school. “I’m their advocate. I’m the one who loves you and wants you to succeed.”

Inside a classroom, teachers attempt to create as much open space as possible, achieved by methods such as eliminating desks. Instead, a classroom may have tables in different quadrants of the room or seats around a table where students work and interact.

“The kids get to move around instead of sitting in a desk all day,” Holt says. “Parents know how difficult this is. Imagine having a birthday party, for six hours, in a room the size of your living room. But instead of having presents and cake, you have math and reading and writing.”

The absence of desks isn’t mandatory, but teachers like to be able to meet with their students in small groups. While a group of maybe six students is huddled around the teacher, the majority of students work with other students on math games or art projects. The children are active and talkative, yet remarkably well-behaved.

“We don’t have discipline problems because we’re not frustrating them,” she says. “It’s because they’re engaged. They own their success.”

Teacher Karen Konrad explains what it means for students to take ownership of their success through a travel metaphor: “The goal may be to get to Seattle, but there are different routes to Seattle.”

And it is the “route” that students have a say in.

“Right now, I’m teaching them about the scientific method,” Konrad says. “We build the curriculum with the child. One group is studying monkeys while the other group is studying lemurs.”

Holt says that one priority at Green Gables is achieving the mandatory goals without breaking the spirit of the children. A salient example is the lack of grades. For feedback, Green Gables students are given one of four designations: Novice, apprentice, practitioner or expert.

“Grades are not good for kids,” Holt says. “It’s too discouraging to get a D or an F. But a student who is an apprentice one year can be proud of the progress they’ve made when the next year they’re a practitioner.”

The designations, as well as the multi-age classrooms, hint at the educational philosophy at Green Gables. Children are seen as being on a flexible spectrum of achievement and maturity; they therefore cannot be simply pigeon-holed by age.

The multi-age classrooms also give students the opportunity to experience different roles at different times. Holt says that being in a classroom with three grade levels lets a child experience being the oldest child, the middle child and the youngest child.

Also, the multi-age classes build special relationships, she says.

Kids make friends with students older and younger than themselves, which they rarely do in a single-grade school. And students, parents and teachers develop a special bond by spending three years together instead of just one.

“It’s like a family,” Holt says.

Parents have told Holt that the multi-age classroom allowed a quiet child to get to be a leader and a mentor, whereas in a single-grade style of school, that student would have always been the shy kid. And despite the age differences within a classroom, Holt says that they have no trouble with bullying because of the school’s emphasis on community and mutual respect.

Presiding over such a classroom requires a special teacher, Holt says. The teacher must keep track of every student’s progress and individualize curriculum for each student.

Konrad says it’s more work, but more satisfying.

“It’s more honest,” she says. “I taught fifth grade before I was here, and some were reading at third-grade level and some were reading at an upper high school level, so even within a single-grade class I was individualizing. But I was feeling bound by the expectations. Here, if a third-grader can read sixth-grade texts, then I get to give them sixth-grade books.

“It’s absolutely amazing. It’s a community of learners, and everyone is honored. Every child receives information the way they need it. The level of independence, self-directedness self-confidence and thirst for learning greatly increases.”

In an era in which the standardized test is a bar everyone needs to be able to clear, Konrad seems confident that she can provide the knowledge while still addressing the students’ hearts.

“I feel so strongly about this type of school because it helps them succeed academically, socially and emotionally,” she says. “I can meet all those standards. I’m teaching them content –– reading, writing, arithmetic. But I’m also teaching them life skills, such as respecting one another, celebrating diversity and being responsible citizens.”

But Konrad and Holt expressed concern that the state’s budget troubles will hurt Green Gables. For kindergarten through second grade, the average class size is 22 students; for third through fifth, it’s about 27. But Holt has been informed that she’s already overstaffed by 1.5 teachers and will need to cut staff.

Regardless, the press for higher test scores continues.

“I’ve never seen so many powerful, dedicated teachers, and I think we’ll rise to the challenge,” Konrad says. “But I’m very concerned. It’s like trying to ride a bicycle in a race and having the wheels and handle bars taken away.” Seeming to sum up her feeling about funding, tests, and in fact the school’s general philosophy, Konrad adds, “The children must come first.”

Staff writer Kenny Ching: 925-5565 kching@fedwaymirror.com

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