- Associated Press - Wednesday, April 27, 2016

SHERIDAN, Wyo. (AP) - When Terri Armstrong brought out a rack of eggs, the students couldn’t hold back their excitement.

The six students gathered around a table in the commons area of the school recording their findings of their egg embryo project. They were going to have chicks in a few weeks. The students had been monitoring the embryos as a science project for the past month, the Sheridan Press reported (https://bit.ly/1SN4eJn).

“We hope the eggs are going to hatch,” Armstrong said. “How do we spell eggs?”

The older students wrote down the word in flawless cursive. The younger ones struggled with printing their name.

But they do almost everything as a group, no matter the grade or ability.

In the rolling hills between Sheridan and Gillette sits Arvada Elementary, a school with one of the smallest enrollments in the state. In the three-room school located in a town with a population of 30, you’ll find two kindergartners, one first-grader, three second-graders and a fourth-grader.

There are no third-graders this year.

Juggling that many grades takes a special type of teacher. Arvada Elementary has two of them. Armstrong and Jan Gibbs have worked for years in one of the most unconventional classroom settings, but it has its advantages.

Arvada Elementary’s school day operates like a well-oiled machine.

First thing every morning, they raise the flag and say the Pledge of Allegiance. Then it’s on to classroom time - younger students in one classroom and older students in another.

Later, they gather again for projects, then lunch and more classes in the afternoon.

“We try to keep a routine here,” Gibbs said. “We feel like the students do better in those situations.”

But it took the teachers a while to figure out the method.

Despite earning her education degree, Gibbs, the classroom’s main teacher, spent the first half of her life working on a ranch and substitute teaching before she became Arvada Elementary’s teacher 13 years ago.

“I had no idea how I was going to plan for all of those grades,” Gibbs said. “The first couple of years was really hard for me. It took me a while to learn how to manage it.”

Armstrong followed a similar path. After working as an aide at Coffeen Elementary, she too worked at a ranch after she moved to Arvada with her husband.

But when another teacher’s aide was needed for Arvada Elementary, word got out that Armstrong had education experience. The district reached out to her to come teach at the school.

“I think I was probably the only one in the area who had (teacher’s aide) experience,” she said laughing.

Not only do the teachers bounce between grades, they jump between school roles. With almost no staff working with them, Armstrong drives the bus in the morning; Gibbs and Armstrong also serve as school secretary and serve recess duty.

When the students get in trouble, they don’t get sent to the principal’s office - they have to deal with Gibbs.

In order to receive their electives, students are bussed more than 20 minutes to the Clearmont School, where they do weekly physical education classes, library courses and other programs that Arvada Elementary isn’t able to provide.

This is their only time to plan for the rest of the week, but both Armstrong and Gibbs said they don’t mind it at all.

“I really couldn’t see myself teaching in anything but a multi-grade classroom at this point,” Gibbs said.

Students range from 6-10 years old, but they work side-by-side.

Gibbs and Armstrong do as many projects together as possible.

“Project-based learning is really our friend, because we can have a theme or a topic then we can break it off for each grade,” Gibbs said.

“You also have to teach to the standards, so you really have to be creative with your projects.”

Older students are often told to help their younger classmates with their classwork, which reinforces previous years’ lessons. Younger students sit in on lessons geared toward older students where they pick up on advanced concepts.

“Our second-graders are already doing multiplication because they are already seeing it, they are already hearing it around them,” Armstrong said.

It also develops students socially. The teachers hold the older students to higher standards, which forces them to develop as leaders in the classroom. Meanwhile, kindergartners mature much faster being around older students, Gibbs said.

Standardized testing has placed an enormous amount of pressure on Wyoming’s teachers, and despite their atypical classroom, Arvada Elementary is no exception. Generally, the school does well on the state’s standardized testing, but it’s sometimes tough to track because only a few students take the tests annually.

“It really depends on the year,” Gibbs said. “Sometimes you will get a kid who really scores well on math then doesn’t score as well on reading on the test . but when you have these kids in the multi-grade classrooms and they are overhearing lessons geared for older grades, they generally are able to make a better guess because they’ve heard those words before.”

Sheridan County School District 3 is under financial pressure as of late as well. With district enrollment declining, its schools are receiving less per-pupil funding.

At April’s school board meeting, enrollment was projected to drop another 3-5 percent this year. Gibbs and Armstrong teach a class of seven students. It’s the smallest class they’ve ever had.

Some may question the need for a three-room schoolhouse with seven students, but teachers say the school is necessary.

All but one of the students live on a ranch, Gibbs explained. It’s sometimes an hour bus ride to Arvada Elementary, meaning students wake up at the crack of dawn and often get home late in the evening.

An extra 30 minutes on the bus to and from school in Clearmont would only cut short what little free time they have.

“If these kids had to go to Clearmont every day, they would spend hours on the bus every day,” Armstrong said. “That’s not good for any child.”

“You can’t do away with the small schools, you just can’t,” she added.

But there is also something to be said for the community bonding created at the school. Gibbs and Armstrong are neighbors with many of the students they teach; they’ve worked or continue to work alongside the students’ parents on ranches. Every community event, they are together.

“You have connections with students and their families outside of the school,” Gibbs said. “We really have a great community of kids and parents here.”


Information from: The Sheridan (Wyo.) Press, https://www.thesheridanpress.com/

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