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One-Room Country School Revival in Seeley Lake

Kaye Mahoney, herself a product of the proven country school concept, teaches 18 students of third, fourth and fifth grade levels in a new one-room country school project at Seeley Lake Elementary. The multi-age classroom is one of several projects receiving funding help from the Claiborne/Ortenberg Foundation.

One-Room Country School Stages a Comeback

by Suzanne Vernon
For the Pathfinder
September 19, 1996

There's a new country school at Seeley Lake this fall, tucked away in the middle of Seeley Lake Elementary School. According to one parent, "It's kind of a throwback to the old, one-room schoolhouse."

And that's exactly what the new multiage class feels like to veteran teacher Kaye Mahoney.
"I grew up in a country school. I taught in a country school in eastern Montana. This is very similar," Mahoney explained, adding that she is relying on her own personal experiences to implement unit studies and establish class routines in the new mixed-age class of third, fourth and fifth graders.

Eighteen students ranging in age from eight to ten are helping each other with subjects like reading, writing, science and social studies, and they are learning to create their own projects. The small class size is a key to the success of the multiage class. "I can personally get to all 18 of those students every day," Mahoney explained.

Getting through to students with one-on-one instruction is a critical element of education, according to principal Dan White. "If we really want to teach students as individuals, we want to have a multi-faceted program that allows for a variety of learning styles," White explained.

Within any elementary school, certain populations of students "don't fit" in the traditional classroom structure, White said. At the high end, he explained, students get bored. At the low end, students get behind. Multiage classrooms encourage students to work at their own pace on projects of their own choosing. They can move ahead when they are ready, without fear of failure. According to White, in the multiage classroom "you get student buy-in, so school becomes their program." Attitude and self-esteem improves, he said. "Kids are choosing to be learners."

"The multiage class is not as orchestrated as the traditional classrooms," White continued. "It's intended more to meet their individual learning styles," he said, adding that students are encouraged to focus on learning rather than getting a grade.

Already, Mahoney is seeing positive results by teaching with the new class structure. Take spelling, for example. She encouraged a few students to find harder words to add to their spelling lists, and handed them the dictionary. The students are now eagerly helping to create their own spelling lists. They have become involved in directing their own learning activities.

Mahoney enjoys working with kids. It's her favorite part of the job. When one of her students arrived at school the other day and handed her a completed book report-which had not been assigned-Mahoney knew the new class was well on its way to success. Earlier, she had encouraged the young reader to share a favorite book with the class, and simply showed her an example of a book report. No report had been assigned. The student chose to create her own project. "That's the first time in 24 years of teaching that I've ever had a student volunteer to write a book report," Mahoney grinned, obviously pleased with her students.

Parents credit Mahoney with success of the program thus far. According to one mother of a fourth grade student in the class, Kaye Mahoney is "really adept at judging what each child can do-and she keeps them all happy!" Parents are pleased that Mahoney's unit-study approach encourages students to keep busy without being overwhelmed.

According to several national studies, children can progress at their own pace more easily in multiage classrooms because grade level barriers are eliminated. Older children develop leadership skills as they work with and help younger students, and younger students quickly learn class routines and appropriate behavior when they can see older students as models.

The approach in these types of classrooms encourages cooperation, according to information published by education groups in Kentucky and other states where multiage classrooms are becomng the norm.

"It creates a softer environment," Principal Dan White explained. "In the traditional classroom, where students are all the same age, the atmosphere sometimes becomes more competitive, rather than nurturing." In the multiage classroom, competition is reduced because children work on self-selected activities.

Last year, when faculty and administrators at Seeley Elementary recognized an opportunity to create a multiage classroom, they visited with parents of second, third and fourth grade students, and offered them an opportunity to place their children in the new program this fall. Response was positive. In fact, a few students had to be turned away. Keeping the class size small was critical to its success.

Parents continue to be supportive of the program. At a recent parents' meeting, several adults volunteered to help students with various projects in the classroom. According to one mother of a third grader, "This is good. It's the way I was taught," she said, explaining that she attended a one-room school where students in several different grades were taught by one teacher. "It's good to have the different age groups together," she said.

If this pilot program is successful, the district is prepared to continue to put money into the program, according to White. In two years, Seeley Elementary hopes to also create a multiage class for sixth, seventh and eighth grade students.

The multiage class project is just one component of a much larger program being implemented this year at Seeley Lake Elementary, thanks in part to a $40,000 grant from the Ortenberg Foundation, established by fashion designer Liz Claiborne, and her husband Art Ortenberg, who own a home at Lindbergh Lake. The Foundation has funded several community and education programs in both Seeley Lake and Condon in recent years.

At Seeley Lake, the grant is funding a wide variety of projects that help teachers implement new education methods, and encourage parents to become more involved with the school.

One of the more visible aspects of the grant-funded projects this year is the new preschool being operated at the elementary school. This program relies very heavily on parent involvement, White said.

Other projects new to the school this year include setting up a data base of children in the district, so the school can do direct mailings to parents and encourage involvement at the school.

In the area of curriculum enrichment, the school will be implementing a school-to-work program, where business and professional people are invited to visit with students.

Eventually, this program will pair students with business people in the community in a vocational/career training type of program.

The district also plans a six-week "enrichment cluster" program, where groups of ten or fewer students are mentored by teachers, parents and business people to learn about subjects such as art, music and various hobbies.

The district also plans to evaluate and perhaps change the way it currently assesses student progress. Achievement tests alone do not provide a complete picture of what a student is learning, according to White.

Money from the Ortenberg grant is also being used to improve and expand the elementary school library, and also provide more in-service and training opportunities for teachers, along with a new adult education program which will be open to the community.