Columbia elementary finds success in different teaching methods

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COLUMBIA - Cedar Ridge Elementary school is slowly falling apart. The school is over its capacity and many classrooms, are taught in trailers next to the school. There is no running water in their kitchen, meaning cafeteria food has to be trucked in every day and there are only one set of bathrooms per gender in the building.

However, Cedar Ridge elementary school will get a new location by 2017, resolving some of these problems. While there may be problems with the structure of the school, inside the classroom, things are going in the opposite direction. 

Unlike most elementary schools, Cedar Ridge Elementary School doesn't group students solely by grades, but instead groups students of multiple ages together, giving them the ability to assess students more closely and group them based on academic level as well. 

Students at the elementary school are sorted into three different groups; the kangaroos (grades K-1), the bees (grades 2-3) and the scholars (grades 4-5). Students are then with the same teachers for two years, which help teachers get to know their students better and also gives them the ability to help out their students at a one-on-one level more. Inside each group, students can learn at their own pace, and if some are learning at a faster pace than others, they can move up to a different group for certain classes. For instance, if a kangaroo is showing exceptional skills at math, they can grab their books and go to a scholar classroom for their math lessons. 

"I think our main goal is that the education fits the kids instead of the kid fitting the education," said Lonna Franklin-Eaton, a teacher of the scholar-age students. "We change things constantly to make sure we're hitting every kids' needs, so it's really about that."

Overall, teachers at Cedar Ridge really enjoy the style used at the school and prefer it over traditional teaching methods. 

"I don't want to teach any other way," Franklin-Eaton said. "It's definitely more work, but we get better results, these kids are happy and it's a happier place to teach. I can't imagine going back to any other way."

According to Franklin-Eaton, students at Cedar Ridge are not held back to groups with kids younger due to problems it may create socially with them. As well, Principal Angie Chandler said if students are excelling in the classroom, the school will still make sure to group them in many classes with kids their age, to help develop strong friendships and social skills. 

"We don't make it a point to take kids down a level because emotionally that might not be a good thing," Chandler said. "A kindergartner may be ready to go to first grade but emotionally if they need that teacher, we're going to differentiate for that student and let them stay. We are never going to let us pushing them affect them negatively emotionally."

A former teacher, Chandler thought of starting this curriculum a few years ago, and with district support, she helped make her idea into a reality in 2011. 

"We decided to go a whole building that next year and have every person in the building bringing the momentum to make this work, and I think that was a big part of this." Chandler said. "You're either going to do it or you might struggle."

While at first parents were a little confused with how everything worked, Franklin-Eaton says now parents have bought into the system. 

"The first year we had a parent meeting and they were very concerned," Franklin-Eaton said. "Now they love it and they see how happy their kids are and how much they're learning."

Currently, Cedar Ridge is the only elementary school in the district to use these methods. However, Chandler said Ridgeway Elementary uses a similar approach and that her students are seeing success at the middle school levels. In fact, some students at Cedar Ridge were learning at such a fast pace that Chandler said she had to talk to the Middle School departments about enhancing their curriculum's to match the pace that some of her students are working at. Chandler currently has some students that are doing algebra at an eighth-grade level, while they are still in the fourth or fifth grade, and he resorted to taking the daily math problems out of the Columbia Tribune for students to solve to give them something challenging to do. In fact, some of the students are doing some math better than their parents.