School age-mix experiment deemed a success

Posted: Sunday, May 25, 2003

FAIRBANKS (AP) Like several of her classmates, Brianna Kemp was not happy when her parents told her that she would stay at Two Rivers Elementary School for the seventh grade rather than go to North Pole Middle School.

''I was kind of mad at first because I wanted to go to a different school,'' Kemp said. ''I thought it would be, like, boring.''

Last week, as she recalled the year, Kemp said she is glad she came.

''It's really not like I expected,'' she said. ''We got to learn about a lot of things we didn't get to learn about earlier in school.''

Her teacher, Bill Beaudoin, ''gets us to pay attention,'' Kemp said. ''If I would have gone to North Pole, I probably would have been goofing off.''

For Two Rivers Elementary, this year amounted to an experiment of sorts. For the first time in recent history, an elementary school opened its doors to middle-school students. The school started the year with 16 seventh- and eighth-graders in one class near the end of its long hallway.

The class came in response to community requests and was approved by the school board last May.

''This program had been sort of a vision for a number of local community people for a number of years,'' said principal Brian Carter.

The class started the year with little more than an idea and a teacher who had moved to the area just a few weeks before the first day of school.

Desks came from the surplus warehouse and textbooks were borrowed from middle schools throughout the district.

''We started the first day (and) I didn't have enough textbooks for everyone,'' Beaudoin said.

The only thing in place was a row of orange lockers installed during the summer, Carter said.

The school's staff, himself included, was apprehensive about adding young adolescents to an elementary school, Carter said.

''I was worried about how their needs would be met in a smaller school,'' he said.

Beaudoin was aware of those needs as well, but counters that his class offered an alternative type of socialization. Students learn how to take care of each other, he said.

''You don't get to go to the next classroom and ignore the kid you don't get along with. The kid you don't get along with is in here with you,'' Beaudoin said. ''I think the socialization here is more powerful than the chaotic socialization you have at large schools.''

As for electives, Carter said they drew on staff expertise, offering keyboarding, cooking and Internet research courses in addition to the standard physical education and music classes.

''Second semester we did more of a student aide, teacher aide program. Many of the kids were assigned to classroom teachers at the K-6 level,'' Carter said. ''That is when we saw things really settle into an inclusionary program.''

Looking back on the year, Carter said the experiment was a success.

''It has worked incredibly well and it really went far beyond my expectation,'' he said.

The students, who numbered more than 20 by the end of the year, have mixed reactions to their experience in the small school.

Eighth-grader Alyssa Miramontes said her year at Two Rivers turned out better than she expected, though she still has some reservations about the idea of putting middle-schoolers in the same school as elementary students. She said the school is too sheltered and is ''not realistic.''

''I think elementary school kids who stay here from kindergarten through eighth grade are going to have a hard time in high school,'' Miramontes said. ''You have to understand how to deal with peer pressure.''

But other students said the small class allowed them to be more comfortable both socially and academically.

''Once we got to know the people, we didn't have to act all cool,'' said Alaina Kemp. ''We got comfortable with each other and really didn't have to joke around as much.''

As the class ends its inaugural year, Beaudoin and Carter are looking forward to next year. The district has promised some classroom improvements, they said, including tables rather than the desks that more than one student said are too small.

''It has been more than worth the price of admission,'' he said. ''I have grown from this experience.''

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