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Ms. Holland's Opus 

Compassion, responsibility and perseverance at Ivywild Elementary School

Ivywild Elementary School stands like a bulwark in the middle of this urban, south-central Colorado Springs neighborhood. Surrounded by tidy bungalows built in the early decades of the 1900s and rows of stately elms, the handsome sandstone building sits on a hill, high above the street. Originally established in 1910 on the spot around the corner that is now Edelweiss German restaurant, the current school building was erected in 1916, and has continuously served the neighborhood's children and parents since then.

On a chilly February morning, sun streams through the tall windows, streaking the cavernous central hallway with broad bands of light. Shiny wooden floors squeak beneath the feet of scurrying students, filing in and out of the combination gymnasium, auditorium and lunch room. On any given morning, close to 100 students eat breakfast at school; 80 to 90 percent of the student body qualify for federally funded free meals.

Just inside the front door, Principal Joe Madril greets every child by name. When parents walk through the door, he greets them by name as well.

Down the hall and around the corner, Sandy Holland prepares for another day with her fifth-grade students. A neatly dressed blonde, 28-year-old Holland has her nose deeply buried in a book, choosing difficult, unfamiliar words from the day's reading material for her students' vocabulary training.

In the corner of the classroom, her desk is draped on three sides with rich, purple velvet, and is pleasantly cluttered with papers, books and her collection of turtles -- ceramic, glass, plastic, stuffed and otherwise. The students' desks, across the room, are pushed together in clusters of six. In the center of each cluster, atop a purple cloth, sits a healthy, green potted plant. A bottle of water stands on each student's work surface. Strains of Mozart drift throughout the room, emanating from a boom box on a shelf in the back.

Holland has been a teacher for five years; of those, two have been at Ivywild.

In her third year as a District 11 elementary school teacher, she spent a professional training day here, observing the schoolwide immersion in a curricular program called Integrated Thematic Instruction (ITI), a teaching method that grew out of brain research identifying multiple intelligences -- the various ways by which we learn.

"When I saw what was happening at Ivywild, I knew that was how I wanted to teach," said Holland. "I spoke to the principal at the time, Donna Chadd, and told her I really wanted to come to this school. She called me when she had an opening, and I began training in ITI."

Originally conceptualized some 20 years ago as a method for teaching students classified as Gifted and Talented, educator Susan Kovalik developed the ITI method out of her conviction that the same dynamic, problem- solving, child-centered approach to teaching and learning should be applied to all pupils at all skill levels -- and equally importantly, at all socio-economic levels.

In Colorado Springs, Ivywild and Stratton Elementary Schools are dedicated to the method -- Ivywild for five years now, and Stratton for four.

The results, says Holland, are a teacher's dream -- an orderly, warm, stimulating, democratic learning environment, and kids who love coming to school, even when the rest of their lives are a mess.


9:15 a.m.

Sandy Holland stands at the door to her classroom and shakes hands with each student as he or she enters the room. Eager faces look up into hers, sharing stories of home, playground, family and friends. On this particular day, most of the buzz centers on last night's District 11 school board meeting, and the board's vote not to close five schools, including Ivywild, as had originally been proposed. High fives fly.

A shy boy in a plaid shirt and baggy jeans reaches tentatively for Ms. Holland's hand. He is new to Ivywild, and this will be his first day in her class.

"Are you Ryan?" she asks, enthusiastically pumping his hand.

He smiles and says yes.

"You know, I saw you yesterday when you came in to register, and I said to myself, I hope he's in our class!"

Ryan walks in with the other children and is directed by one of them to an empty desk while Ms. Holland continues to greet the rest of the class, one by one.

The children settle quickly in their desks and immediately set to work on their mindmaps, diagrams that help them encapsulate what happened yesterday in school and at home.

"Are you comfortable with the noise level in this room at this time?" asks Ms. Holland, smiling, her eyes wide, her hands circling her ears.

"No," the class murmurs.

"I hope not," says Ms. Holland, moving between desks, stopping to inspect individual mind maps and to offer encouragement for more detail.

Kayla, a honey-colored girl with an expansive topknot ponytail, hunkers over her multicolored diagram. A line extends out from the center, representing what happened last night; at the end of the line is a circle in which she has written in tall black letters: SAVED MY SCHOOL!

Ms. Holland spends some time talking with Ryan, explaining to him how things will occur this morning, and gently assesses his reading level by asking him which are his favorite books. Unobtrusively, she discerns whether he has school supplies or not. Many children, she explains later, come to her class with no supplies, and she must quickly make sure their basic needs are met with the least amount of discomfort. Ryan, as it turns out, has most everything he needs and settles in easily.

Ms. Holland walks to the back of the room and asks if one of the boys, a slight, pale brunette, will join her there. She sits in a small metal chair at the reading table. The rest of the class remain focused on their work.

"You know, I was wondering if there was anything going on with you," she says to the boy. "When you came in this morning, you seemed a little angry, maybe, or distracted, and usually, you know, you're cutting jokes and stuff, so I just thought I'd ask."

The boy looks at his shoes, and first mumbles, "I'm okay," then looks at Ms. Holland and begins talking in earnest.

"My brother had a big fight with my mother this morning," he says.

"And that worried you," says Holland, nodding and maintaining eye contact.

"Yeah, I'm worried because I'm afraid he's going to quit school," says the boy, his face now streaked with anguish.

"You know," says Ms. Holland, "that is so caring and responsible of you to worry about him like that. It really is." She pauses for a second to let this thought sink in.

"But I know your mother," she continues, "and I know she's really tough about school and that kind of thing, and I'll bet she can handle this problem, don't you think?"

The boy nods. "Yeah," he says, "I think she can."

"So you're okay with that?" she says, looking to make sure there's nothing else he needs to say. "Then I'm okay too, and I think we can both have a great day, right?"

The boy smiles and nods. They shake hands and he returns to his desk.

Ms. Holland moves briskly to a white rocking chair in a carpeted open space and shuffles notes while continually prompting the students, asking them to think about which life skills they used yesterday, what they mastered, what choices they made.

On a poster board, next to the students' work area, the life skills central to ITI are written in bold Magic Marker: Pride. Courage. Caring. Common sense. Curiosity. Patience. Organization. Effort. Sense of humor. Flexibility. Perseverance. Initiative. Integrity. Friendship. Responsibility. Problem-solving. Cooperation.


9:45 a.m.

The students, each in his or her own time with no coercion from Ms. Holland, have now closed their notebooks and joined her in a circle on the carpet. Some pull pillows from a corner closet to sit on, and one hugs a beanbag turtle to his chest. Ms. Stephens, the school's music teacher, has joined the class now, and will remain throughout the morning reading period. Throughout the building, all grades are focused on reading at the same time, and auxiliary personnel are enlisted as classroom aids for that time.

"I have something so exciting to talk to you about," says Ms. Holland, her hands flying, eyebrows raised, "so let's try not to spend too much time going 'round the circle. But I know you have a lot you want to talk about."

Several students report on last night's momentous school board meeting and share more congratulations. Six of Ms. Holland's fifth-graders were at the board meeting for the duration, and one, Kyla Ware, addressed the board and the huge crowd of District 11 constituents, pointing out in an impassioned speech why Ivywild should be spared. This morning, her classmates applaud her.

When the turtle is tossed, the receiver gets to speak. Eventually it lands in the lap of William, a boy with expressive brown eyes. He takes his time, composes his thoughts, and pulls out a piece of play money, a fifty-dollar bill. The currency is used in the classroom both as a tool to teach math application skills, and as a reward for doing good deeds for others. When the entire class comes in with homework done, each student receives a small reward to add to his personal bank account.

"I didn't get my homework done last night," says William, his voice beginning to choke, "so I want to give two dollars to everyone, and put the rest in Ryan's account." He extends the bill toward Ms. Holland, tears beginning to cascade down his cheeks. His classmates watch quietly, their faces solemn and concerned. A boy named Richard spontaneously goes for Kleenex.

Following a moment of silence, Ms. Holland responds. "When somebody like you, William, somebody who is so responsible and works so hard," she says, bending down toward the circle, "when someone like you doesn't get something done, it's okay. It's really okay. You know, sometimes we just have too much going on in our lives to get everything done, and I know you have other things on your mind right now, right?"

William nods, wiping his nose.

"I'll bet you were visiting your grandfather last night at the hospital, right?" asks Ms. Holland.

"Yes," says William. "He's going to be all right, but my aunt got her diagnosis and she might die." Another moment of silence.

"William, I appreciate you taking responsibility for not getting your work done, but I think, and I think the class agrees, that you don't need to pay for this. Right? What do you think?" Ms. Holland scans the faces around the circle. Heads nod in agreement and smile at William. He folds the play bill and pockets it, heaves a big sigh and tosses the turtle to a classmate, a boy who, Ms. Holland tells me later, often misses assignments.

"I got all my work done!" the turtle's newest recipient announces to the circle. A round of applause follows, and the floor is returned to Ms. Holland.


10 a.m.

Following circle time, the class breaks up into four separate reading groups. Some individuals work at their desks, writing a story that is due at the end of the week. Ms. Holland supervises a group reading the young adult novel Maniac Magee around a small table at the back of the room.

In the hallway, just outside the classroom door, Sonya, one of Ms. Holland's fifth-graders, leads a group reading From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler.

Earlier that morning, before the students arrived, Ms. Holland explained that she was looking for a way to draw Sonya out, since she sometimes feels separate from the group. Sonya is a tall girl with unruly curls and glasses. The day before, she tested at the 99th percentile for placement in the District 11 Gifted and Talented program.

"She's a genius!" crowed Ms. Holland, explaining that this morning she intended to ask Sonya to lead a group of her classmates in reading. "She reads practically an entire chapter book a night to herself."

Sonya responds thoughtfully when Ms. Holland asks her to do this "really, really, really big favor" for her. She will need a few minutes to prepare. She consults with Ms. Holland on the best way to approach vocabulary teaching, and how to formulate questions that will challenge her group. Ms. Holland points out that one of the D-11 reading standards is learning to predict, to look ahead. She explains the concept of foreshadowing to Sonya, and tells her to think about that.

Each child in Ms. Holland's class has his or her own booklet of D-11 Standards Benchmark Indicators, and the students highlight each standard as it is mastered. But mastery does not simply mean the ability to regurgitate answers. In Ms. Holland's class, a standard is mastered when one of the academic concepts is understood in the context of real-life application, another guideline of ITI and brain compatible learning -- meaningful context. Today, Sonya will master the concept of foreshadowing in a way she will likely never forget.

Sonya's group watches attentively as she reads aloud to them, then begins to ask questions about the chapter they are reading. The students quietly discuss, then read aloud some more.

In Ms. Holland's group, four boys are discussing the difference between a real place and a fictional place, specifically the fictional town where Maniac Magee has settled with his aunt and uncle -- a place absolutely divided down the middle, with a black side of town and a white side of town. Ms. Holland reminds the students of laws in place that forbid such segregation, and asks them to think about how ridiculous such rules would be to live by.

"What about you, William?" she asks. "Aren't you a mixture of two races, black and white? Where would you belong in such a town?"

William thinks about this, laughs and shrugs. "Right in the middle, I guess," he says.

They discuss how, in the book, white people are afraid to venture to black town, and blacks are afraid of persecution if they enter white town.

"Is there anywhere in Colorado Springs any of you cannot go, any place where you would feel you didn't belong?" she asks the four boys, one white, one Hispanic, one black and one mixed race.

They shake their heads vigorously. No, they agree, there is nowhere they feel they would not belong.

Reading period lasts the bulk of the morning, until recess. Another of the brain compatible elements of ITI teaching and learning is in clear evidence in Ms. Holland's class at Ivywild -- adequate time. Though much is accomplished in a single day, students are never rushed. And at each step, and in every subject, the students are reminded of how they are using the various parts of their brains, and different ways of thinking, to learn.

On the board, next to the door, the behavior guidelines of the ITI learning environment are displayed in bold, block letters: Trustworthiness. Truthfulness. Active listening. No put-downs. Personal best.

Students are polite to one another and respectful of the classroom space. One boy, Ms. Holland tells me, used to throw chairs before coming to Ivywild.

"Can you believe it?" she says, her eyes popping wide. "That wonderful child over there used to have no control over his behavior in school. And look at him now. Just look at him. I could kiss him. I could just kiss him."


Future shock

Ivywild Elementary School is one of five schools recently targeted by District 11 for closure due to budget cutbacks. And though they received a reprieve from the board at a late February meeting, the entire student body will still have to move next year.

In the fall of 2000, all of Ivywild will be moved to portable classrooms at Midland Elementary School, some two miles away. This is reportedly a temporary evacuation of the building while D-11 completes work on the building, funded by 1996 capital improvements bond money.

But some parents are wary of the evacuation, fearful that this will be the district's first step in permanently closing Ivywild. In recent budget talks, Ivywild was designated by D-11 administration as one of the least cost efficient schools in the district. That efficiency standard is based on a mathematical calculation -- the costs of operating the school divided by the number of students in the school. Operating costs include the principal's salary and benefits, the cost of information technology coordinators, librarians and media technicians, custodians, custodial supplies, utilities, and building upkeep -- everything except teachers' salaries.

The math generally portrays larger schools as being more cost efficient, and smaller schools as being more costly, thereby less efficient. With a projected enrollment of just 164 students, the district calculates Ivywild's operating cost at $1565 per student; Vera Scott Elementary, one of the district's large new suburban schools, by comparison, with 612 students, costs the district $660 per head.

But because per-student operating costs don't take teachers' salaries into account, those figures don't tell the whole story. District 11 funds only 6.5 full-time-equivalent (FTE) classroom teaching positions at Ivywild; at Scott the number of district-funded FTEs is 23.5. Additionally, D-11 funds 3.5 full-time teaching salaries for art, music and physical education at Scott, and 1.2 for music and physical education at Ivywild.

At recent public hearings to discuss District 11's budget shortfall, the clear message was that if a bond issue fails to pass this November, Ivywild could close. One board member, Sherry Butcher, suggested that Ivywild might become a K-8 charter school with an ITI focus.

But for now, students, teachers and parents alike nervously await a final word on their school's fate.

Earlier this year, Sandy Holland petitioned the board, asking that they allow her to keep her fifth-graders one more year, to further instill in them the values and self-confidence that she believes are a direct result of ITI and the safe, caring atmosphere of Ivywild. Holland's students from last year, who moved on to North Middle School in sixth grade, have suffered from the split, she said. Holland firmly believes that one more year with her current students would give them the tools necessary to succeed in middle school.

She has told her kids she would teach them "under a tree, in the desert, under a bridge, anywhere."

At this time, her proposal has not been approved by the administration or the school board.

And Ivywild parents continue to struggle with what they perceive as the district's blind eye to what is going on at their school. D-11's measure of efficiency does not factor in the kinds of successes parents like Ann Ware have seen in their children.

"Last year my daughter was getting poor grades," said Ware of daughter Kyla, a student in Ms. Holland's fifth-grade class. "She was a C, D and F student. This year she's getting A's and B's. We just moved into the neighborhood at the beginning of the school year.

"Their program is carrying over to our home," she continued. "You can see it. My kids will say, 'I'm not being responsible.' They use words like perseverance and they know what it means. They carry the whole thing home."

Ware believes the district's budgeting priorities are skewed in favor of new suburban schools and discriminate toward older, low-income neighborhood schools.

"It's wrong," she said. "They feel that the richer people deserve better, top notch, new, but kids who are already part of an established neighborhood don't deserve the benefits. They built five new schools, and now they want to close five. It's a shame to see such a great school be treated so badly."

Sandy Holland says she believes Ivywild would compare favorably to any school in the district when measured by her standards of efficiency.

"As an educator, I think of efficiency as being more a reflection of how my kids perform," she says. "Efficiency means you have a higher ratio of output, relative to input. I see a tremendous amount of output. My kids know what's expected of them at any minute and they do it. They may not have the highest test scores in the district, but if you look at where they start and where they end up, they grow incredibly while they're at this school."

Holland admits she doesn't know much about Gov. Bill Owens' proposal to grade schools according to academic performance on standardized tests, but she firmly believes that Ivywild would score high on any evaluation that accurately reflected what goes on within the walls of the school.

"I would love us to get a report card," she said. "Maybe if they did that for us, maybe we could stay open. I would hold our school up against any school in the district.

"This is the first year I've taught where I've felt that every single kid is getting what they need, and I'm confident they'll do well on those tests. I believe that at this school, we are giving kids what they deserve -- their own, individual educational program."

Earlier in the week, Ms. Holland taught her students a science class on levers and pulleys. A table was set up for hands-on demonstrations. The fifth-graders loved the material, and praised Ms. Holland for the poster she drew to illustrate the lesson.

On a piece of poster board, a man's body is bent beneath the bulk of a huge rock. The inscription, a quote by Archimedes, reads: Give me a place to stand and I will move the earth.

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