The art of individuality

Ridgeway’s nontraditional classroom works to encourage independence and creativity
Monday, November 27, 2006 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 7:39 p.m. CDT, Thursday, July 17, 2008

Today at Ridgeway Elementary School, about 230 children will pursue a single vision: celebrating the “art of the book.” But in typical Ridgeway fashion, they are doing it as individuals.


Destiny Patrick, 9, a fourth-grader at Ridgeway Elementary, crafts a cover Wednesday for the book she wrote and designed.

(JERONIMO NISA/Missourian)

Thanks to a $1,000 grant from the National Parent Teacher Association and a matching grant from Ridgeway’s Parent Teacher Student Association, students are writing, designing and binding hand-made books.

MU’s Museum of Art and Archaeology offered inspiration for the project. It currently features “The Art of the Book” exhibit, which displays illustrated books depicting the evolution of design. The students’ finished books will join the museum’s display on Dec. 14.

Children’s book author and illustrator Dar Hosta, a Ridgeway alumna, visited the school in August. To get things started she offered students tips for story ideas and illustration. Later, students toured the Museum of Art and Archaeology, the Museum of Anthropology and the Missourian newsroom to learn about various forms of written communication.

Now, each student is creating his or her own book in an atmosphere that also emphasizes collaboration. Family and friends will have a chance to see all the books in December.

This project demonstrates Ridgeway’s emphasis on Individually Guided Education, or IGE, a method by which students work toward individual goals at their own pace.

“Regularly, we look at assessment information and our teaching to see where we can improve instruction,” said Susan Fales, a former principal who worked at Ridgeway for 30 years. “And we try to have every child improve, not just specific groups.”

Ridgeway students work both individually and in groups. They learn directly from teachers who set individual student goals and work with other students of various ages and abilities.

Among the Columbia Public School District’s 29 schools, Ridgeway sets itself apart with schoolwide multi-age classrooms. Kindergarteners and first-graders share classrooms, as do second- and third-graders and fourth- and fifth-graders. Ridgeway has been structured this way since 1972, when it became a magnet school.

“(The magnet school) has worked well and continues to work well in Columbia,” Fales said. “The thing about the school is everyone is there by choice and that’s an advantage.”

This structure is more flexible than the traditional classroom setup, said Jack Jensen, district assistant superintendent for elementary education. But parents should be aware of both the advantages and the disadvantages.

“Giving students that instructional openness to go as far as they can in that setting would be a benefit,” Jensen said. “A disadvantage is some students function better in (a) more structured setting, and parents have to know if that’s appropriate for their child to be in that kind of environment.”

A lottery system is used to select new students from applications submitted by parents. Every family has an equal opportunity. However, younger siblings of students already attending the school are automatically admitted. With 60 to 70 applicants each year and room for only 40 new kindergarteners, this year 23 students are on the waiting list.

To become a magnet school, a detailed proposal outlining focus and curriculum must be submitted to the district. The proposals must show how the curriculum’s focus will draw the same amount or more students into the school to keep up attendance. The district evaluates requests each year.

Ridgeway students also benefit from a highly trained staff. “There is a very stable, mature staff that tends to stay in the setting for long periods of time,” said Jensen. The majority of Ridgeway’s full-time teachers have worked there for more than five years.

The unique classroom environment and experienced teachers contribute to the school’s success on standardized tests, said Fales. For example, Ridgeway’s fourth- and fifth-graders collectively scored among the highest in the state on the 2006 Missouri Assessment Program, which measures academic progress.

Sally Beth Lyon, the district’s director of research, assessment and accountability, said the high MAP scores provide insight into the success of the school as a whole. “It’s wonderful news, of course,” Lyon said. “Students should be proud of the hard work and achievement, and teachers should be proud of delivering the product and curriculum.”

Current principal Marsha Baclesse said the school uses multiple assessments throughout the school year to evaluate student performance. “(The MAP) is one gauge at that time in the year,” Baclesse said. “But there are also other tests in the curriculum that we use with our students.” The students are evaluated with guidelines set by the district, including and classroom assessments, as well as teacher observations.

Although Ridgeway’s curriculum emphasizes literature, as demonstrated by the MAP scores, Baclesse said the curriculum is always changing in response to students’ progress, based on data analysis.

“One year we may have a specific focus on writing, and one year we may put focus on reading comprehension if it looks like reading needs it,” Baclesse said. “We look for patterns of strengths and weakness, and look for strategies to improve weaker areas, and look for opportunities to improve those areas in which our children need it.”

Ridgeway has a history of strong parental involvement as well. “The (IGE) philosophy encourages parents to be involved in the community,” Fales said. “Partnerships are formed for learning, and parents feel an ownership of the school, which quickly becomes comfortable.”

Student and parent advisory committees encourage participation in the school through ongoing discussions.

“We have a strong learning community that is supported with parent involvement and the dedication of teachers and staff,” Baclesse said, “and that all comes together to form good solid relationships that are needed for an effective environment.”

With less than three weeks to go in the book project, the students are busy writing and, in art class, working on illustrations and covers. They will complete their books by binding them themselves.

The finished books and a slide presentation of the project’s process will be presented at MU’s Museum of Art and Archaeology on Dec. 14. The children’s work will be displayed along with the work of artists like William Blake and Pablo Picasso. The display will remain open to the public until Dec. 24.

Julie Chatman and Marilyn Cummins, who together secured the grant for the project, think Ridgeway’s educational philosophy is the perfect environment for this kind of work and the result will be very positive.

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