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Columbia Missourian

Lee Elementary wants to follow Ridgeway Elementary as autonomous school

By Benita Brown, Caitlyn Kolakowski
January 11, 2013 | 6:00 a.m. CST
Lee Elementary wants to formalize its schoolwide incorporation of art into all classroom subjects. Lee Elementary has plans to propose a transition to an autonomous school to the Columbia School Board this spring.

COLUMBIA — About 40 years ago, Ridgeway Elementary School adopted an Individually Guided Education program. In 1990, Lee Elementary School became an expressive arts school.

Both schools have wanted a way to maintain the integrity of these programs.


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Their answer was to become an autonomous school. Ridgeway already is one; Lee wants to be one.

Formerly known as a "small autonomous school," an autonomous school still has to meet the curriculum and assessment requirements mandated by the Columbia School Board. But autonomous schools have control over the curriculum, budget, staffing, governance, scheduling and admissions decisions.

The district  provides resources such as food services, tools for curriculum instruction and Internet technology.

Ridgeway is in its first year as Columbia’s first autonomous school.

Lee Elementary has plans to propose the same transition to the Columbia School Board this spring. Benton Elementary School, which is in its second year oriented around science, technology, engineering and math — or STEM, for short — will propose a transition sometime in the 2013-14 school year.

By adopting an autonomous school structure such as Ridgeway has, both Lee and Benton schools would be able to focus on tailoring their programs to benefit their students.

"Benton is looking at technology and science. Ridgeway looking at its individual program and us looking at the fine arts program, we are recognizing and addressing those different learning styles and meeting the needs of students that learn in certain ways," said Lee principal Karen Burger.

Through Ridgeway's eyes

Ridgeway's Individually Guided Education focuses on evaluating what students need help with for each subject area. The program then divides students into groups to address their needs.

Formally becoming an autonomous school hasn't changed Ridgeway's culture and way of doing things. Principal Ben Tilley said the main objective was to keep the integrity of the Individually Guided Education program.

Ridgeway classes are divided into three multi-age "units." Unit A has grades kindergarten and first grade; Unit B has second and third grades; and Unit C is fourth and fifth grades. 

Looking into a classroom unit, it's hard to tell which student is in one grade or the other, Tilley said. 

In teacher Katie Hanney's Unit A class, she structures the students' work so that it is appropriate for the different grade levels.

Each school day, Hanney's class meets in multi-age groups for most of the day. For one hour when the students separate by grades, the kindergartners learn simple math, such as 3-D shapes. 

On a Thursday in November, Hanney used an interactive SMART Board to display objects for the 22 students to identify. Kevin Teague, an MU student tutor from A Way with Words and Numbers, helped the class figure out which shape was displayed. 

The students then circled the figure they thought was correct on paper worksheets.

"Which one is the cube? The tissue box, the drum or the soccer ball?" Hanney asked the class.

When it was time to check their answers, a 6-year-old girl went to the front of the room, eagerly grabbed the SMART Board pen and circled the tissue box. 

The math lesson ended with the students using "geo-blocks" to review the shapes they learned and construct new figures. The students created their own structure, which made each table resemble a small city of blocks.

"I made a tall Ridgeway," one 6-year-old said while piling cubes and pyramid-shaped blocks on top of each other.

When the math lesson ended, Hanney instructed the students to knock down their blocks and place them in the bins. The city collapsed, and the students got ready to leave the class for their next lesson.

Understanding art, Lee's way

At Lee Elementary, art is the schoolwide emphasis, and it is incorporated into all classroom subjects. Art teacher Ann Mehr said this provides a layered and personal way of learning.

Throughout the school, expressions of its mission — the one it wants to preserve by becoming an autonomous school — are everywhere.

Clay animals in their 3-D habitats are displayed throughout the halls; students paintings of the pond at College and University avenues clutter tables; and paintings and drawings of many types plaster the walls. 

One of the first-grade classes met Mehr on the basement floor, which serves as a large art classroom. 

These first-graders had finished reading "Hansel and Gretel" in their reading class. For their art component of this lesson, the children created clothespin figures of Hansel and Gretel, built gingerbread houses using half-pint milk cartons and molded and painted clay in the shapes and patterns of candy.

"Painting the candy will teach them the different elements of art," Mehr said. "This includes line, shape, color, texture and pattern." 

Once the children had discussed the candy's patterns and colors, they dispersed to their tables to paint their own candy creations.

"I am going to use red, green and white," said Audrey Habermeyer, who was discussing her game plan for designing her peppermint.

"You can use circles to make a weird peppermint," Rebecca Winters suggested.

"No, Dr. Mehr said I have to make it beautiful," Audrey responded.

Lee's transition

Lee Elementary’s potential transition to an autonomous school would allow it to advance its expressive arts program.

"We are looking at ways to make the fine arts even more clearly defined,” the principal, Burger, said.  “We are in a time and place where students learn in different ways. We know this; we have research that says students learn differently." 

Although no drastic changes to the school's program would take place, Burger said there is a five-year plan in place before Lee is functioning 100 percent as an autonomous school.

"What may be changing is how we frame our thinking," Burger said. "The possibilities are now open. When it is wide open, that's a lot of information to take in and to adjust to."

Lee looking to the future

Burger is optimistic that the School Board will approve Lee's request to become an autonomous school.

"If we present some options on what we would like to do and we make a strong case how this would benefit students, I do not see why it wouldn't," Burger aid.

"It is up to us to show that the staff here does believe that learning through the arts is what is best for children, and it is important that they work hard to integrate the arts at all times,"  she said.

Supervising editor is Elizabeth Brixey.