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Family-Style 'School of the Future'

In a school district outside Rochester, N.Y., the community helped design an elementary school program. Last in a four-part weekly series on innovative schools.

ALTHOUGH it's billed as a "school of the future," West Ridge Elementary School doesn't look the part.

Situated at the end of a residential street lined with small, boxy houses, the 1960s-style building suggests a typical suburban elementary school.

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But hidden behind the sprawling building is a modern community center that attests to the progressive nature of this school.

The old West Ridge Elementary closed in 1982 because of declining enrollment in this school district outside Rochester, N.Y. The building was turned into a community center, providing space for preschool day-care, a senior-citizen center, a Montessori school, and an adolescent-treatment center.

When enrollment in the school district began increasing steadily several years ago, district officials brought the community together to reopen West Ridge as a "school of the future."

"One of the things that we want to model here is a community of learners," says Deborah Ryan Johnson, principal of West Ridge.

So when the school reopened in September 1990 with 440 students in kindergarten to Grade 5, the community center wasn't displaced. Instead, a local developer built the new community center on school-district property and connected it to the school.

Senior citizens from the community center frequently come into classrooms to read to West Ridge students and the preschoolers and adolescents sometimes share activities with the school.

The reopening of West Ridge was a community affair from the beginning. "What's unusual about this school is that there's a lot of ownership," says third-grade teacher Joanne Foster.

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District superintendent John Yagielski wanted to make it a "school of choice" that could serve as a laboratory for innovative teaching techniques. Parents throughout the district would choose to enroll their children and teachers would volunteer to work at the school.

From there, Mr. Yagielski enlisted the help of the entire community in putting together a vision for the school.

A team of parents, teachers, and various community members spent a year culling ideas and outlining a plan. Their work resulted in 13 "commitments" for the school, including shared decisionmaking among staff and parents, heterogeneous grouping of students, multigrade instruction, and intense use of technology in classrooms.

"We all - parents and teachers - bought into that vision for this school lock, stock, and barrel," says Barbara Quinn, a first-grade teacher. "That's the foundation for everything we do."

"When you have a group of people who have sworn to common commitments, you can make things happen more quickly," Principal Johnson says.

Bringing parents and other community members into the planning process at this early stage laid the groundwork for broad participation in the school.

"Parent input is absolutely essential to this school," says Ms. Quinn. Parents have an equal voice on the five committees that make key school decisions.

"We no longer come together as a faculty without parents being there," says Ms. Johnson, who was hired by a team made up of the superintendent, teachers, and parents.

"In other schools we had to convince the staff that parents should be here," says Ellen Meyer, who has two children at West Ridge and serves as president of the Parent-Teacher Association. "Here, they just assume parents will participate; it's the difference between fighting your way in and being welcomed."

Parent volunteers run many activities at West Ridge. For example, parents staff a lunch program that allows students to read books, play games, or make crafts after eating. To ease the load on teachers, parent volunteers do much of the daily clerical work. This allows teachers and instructional aides to focus on working with students.

The school is divided into six "families." Three primary families - including three teachers and their students in kindergarten through second grade - and three intermediate families composed of three teachers and their students in third through fifth grades.

Children stay with this family of teachers and students for three years at a time.

Mary Reddy, who has two children at West Ridge, likes the idea of having families at school. "The family structure is set up so that there is a genuine concern for each other," she says. "You [and the teacher] are not strangers to each other in September, getting to know each other by January, and just beginning to adjust to each other by June when school is out."

The families also provide increased support to the staff, Johnson says. Connecting doors between family classrooms allow teachers to communicate more easily throughout the day and classes often participate in mixed-grade activities.

"Everybody teaches everybody here," Quinn says. Second-graders frequently help kindergartners on the computer or fifth-graders help third-graders with math. "As soon as you mix kids across grade levels, you find out how much they know," Johnson says. "And it gives older children the chance to be leaders."

Families of teachers meet every day to make plans and share ideas. "Each family operates based on the needs of the children that are there," Quinn says.

"Each of the families have children with special needs, but the needs of those children are dramatically different from each other," explains Johnson, referring to the fact that classrooms are "blended" at West Ridge with students of all abilities learning together.

"One family is dealing with a young man who is severely autistic. Another family has several children who are learning disabled. Another family has been dealing with a boy who is acting out," Johnson says. "Since each of those situations is different, we have to look at our resources and allocate them in such a way that meets the needs of those children.

"When you finish with that, what you have looks a lot different from the traditional school," Johnson says. "But that's OK because you started from the real needs of the children rather than some artificial structure."

Teachers are given the freedom to make their own decisions about organization within the family groups. "Rarely does anyone ask permission around here," Quinn says.

The new West Ridge Elementary has computers in every classroom - including art and music.

"It's just one of the tools that we have besides the buddy sitting next to us who can help us with our learning, besides a felt-tip marker, and books. It's one other tool for all of us to use in learning," Quinn says.

The school doesn't have a centralized computer lab. Instead, each teacher has a computer and a bank of terminals for students in the classroom.

All this requires a new style of principal. ve needed to learn some new skills," acknowledges Johnson. "For example, how to manage a process when I can't be there all the time."

On most days, the five key committees meet simultaneously. "Clearly, I can't be in five places at once," Johnson says. "I haven't even mastered being in two places at once - although I've tried. So I need to find ways to exert leadership in a positive way without physically being there all of the time."

It comes down to being willing to give up some of the power. "Some principals don't view sharing responsibility in a positive light," Johnson says. "From my point of view, sharing responsibility is very positive because you get the better minds working on the problem."

The goal at West Ridge is to operate by consensus. "It's really hard for others to envision 40 people coming to consensus," Johnson says. "All I can say, is that in a year and a half, we have not had to move away from that goal."

"During the process of making a decision things are discussed - not only at meetings but with your friends, and in the faculty room, and with the parents," Quinn says. "So that when you're ready to achieve consensus, it happens."

"Some people misunderstand consensus and think that everybody needs to agree," Johnson says. "We don't all need to agree but we need to support the decision. That's an important difference." Part 1 of this series appear-ed on Jan. 6, Part 2 on Jan. 13, and Part 3 on Jan. 21.

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