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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
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
"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
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,"
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
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.