The Little School That Could 

Sandy Hollands seventh graders lead the way as Ivywild reinvents itself

Photos by Sean Cayton

When the Independent first visited Ivywild Elementary School and Sandy Holland's fifth-grade classroom, in March of 2000, Ivywild faced possible extinction.

At that time, Colorado Springs School District 11 was planning drastic cuts to meet a budgetary shortfall, and one of the recommendations was to close smaller schools in the district. Ivywild, a small neighborhood school housed in an aging building serving fewer than 200 students, was on that list.

In September 2000, Ivywild students and staff were moved two miles away to Midland Elementary School where both schools operated jointly, with fourth and fifth graders in portable classrooms. Had District 11 not passed a mill levy in November of 2000, the school might have dissolved altogether. But the mill levy came through, and in the fall of 2001, Ivywild students reconverged in their old home.

Under the leadership of Principal Joe Madril, Ivywild re-emerged as a K-8 school where fifth graders could continue their middle-school years in relatively small classes, in a familiar, neighborhood setting with teachers who knew them well, like Ms. Holland.

We decided to revisit Ivywild and Ms. Holland as both school and teacher -- as well as the students -- face the challenges of reinvention.


The tinkle of chimes rings through Sandy Holland's classroom, overheated by the mid-day sun angling through tall windows and crackling with the pent-up energy of 27 seventh graders.

Holland runs a small wooden mallet across a portable set of hanging metal chimes when she wants silence. The students respond as if by habit, automatically directing their eyes toward her. They are arranged around circular tables, in groups of five or six, their papers, pens, fan magazines, purses, backpacks and textbooks scattered about. She stands at an uncluttered podium.

The subject is science. The topic of the day is disease.

"OK," says Ms. Holland, "We're going to do some research now, our favorite word."

A small, amiable groan erupts from the class.

"You guys are excellent at that," says Holland, flipping her hand and wagging her head in dismissal. "This is right up your alley. You guys are all over this."

She reads the group the textbook's definition of disease: "a breakdown in the structure or function of a living organism," then asks the class if they can put that into kid language, in simple terms that everyone will understand. A quiet discussion ensues at each table.

"Don't change it," says Ms. Holland, "just make it simpler." She rings the chimes again to signal the end of the discussion.

"Ricky, what did you get?" she asks, then adds, "Wait for active listening from the group."

The room quiets almost immediately and Ricky reads from his notes.

"Disease is when your body gets eaten alive by millions of tiny microorganisms."

Ms. Holland asks the class if this is an accurate translation of the definition. They quickly agree that it is not. After another round of discussion, Ricky tries again.

"Disease messes up or ruins the normal cycles of your body," he says. Ms. Holland nods encouragingly. Closer, she and the class agree, but not quite there. Together they come up with a suitable definition in kid terms, then turn to the activity associated with the lesson -- a scavenger hunt where each student is given a paper with a grid of 21 squares, each filled with the name of a disease. They are to survey each other and ask if they or anyone they know has ever had that particular disease. If so, they are to write their initials in the square.

"This is an activity we're going to do here in class," says Ms. Holland, "and another is an activity I'm going to trust you to do at home.

"Go ahead and look at the paper I've handed out, I know you want to look at it," she says, her eyes widening as she scans the list of diseases.

"Remember last year when we talked about how proud we were that we could talk about stuff like this and not be, like, 'Yuck, diarrhea!'" she prods the students. "Yes, it's a disease." The class chuckles.

"Eyes on me, please," she instructs. "I know what's going to happen because you guys are active learners. You're going to say, 'Ms. Holland, I'm not sure I know if anyone has had cholera. Can you tell me what it is?

"Don't worry about it. You'll find that out in your research," she assures them. "Oh, and this one, tetanus? It doesn't have anything to do with your anus."

The room is filled with laughter, followed by the tinkle of the chimes, then silence.

"Seriously," she says, still smiling. "Is it going to help you or anybody else to say, 'Yeah, I know what this is,' if you really don't?" She shakes her head and rolls her eyes. "No. Research. You'll find out in your research.

"Now, demonstrate for me what you think would be the appropriate noise level for this exercise."

A murmur of voices arises, solid but not overwhelming.

"That's perfect," she says. "Let's begin."

For 10 minutes, the students mill about trying to collect initials of witnesses or actual sufferers of as many diseases as possible. They quickly discover that many of the diseases are common and some are rare. Conversations ensue when a rare one is identified. How did she feel? What happened? Finally the chimes ring again and everyone returns to their seats.

Homework is assigned and science is over. It's time for literature.

A natural transition

Sandy Holland's class is the first group to extend through the middle-school years at Ivywild, formerly a K-5 elementary school, now converted into a K-8 school. It is the only one of its kind in the public school system in Colorado Springs.

In the spring of 2000, when District 11 was considering closing Ivywild, Holland petitioned the district to allow her to keep her fifth graders through the end of sixth grade, arguing that another year with her would better prepare her students for the transition to middle school and high school. Her students, many facing difficulties at home or socio-economic deficits, needed the one-on-one attention they received at Ivywild, she argued. And Holland believed that middle schoolers would benefit from the teaching style practiced at Ivywild, Integrated Thematic Instruction (ITI), a teaching method based on brain research that recognizes multiple intelligences or varied styles of learning.

That year, Ms. Holland's fifth graders graduated Ivywild and went on to North Middle School, population 750.

But the next year, after passing a mill levy that eased some of their funding woes, District 11 complied, and in 2001, Sandy Holland became the core teacher for Ivywild's first group of middle-schoolers. Some of the seventh graders in her class have been with her since fifth grade. As they have grown and developed, so has she, continually upgrading her training to accommodate the needs of early adolescents.

Principal Joe Madril says the transition was a natural for Ivywild, a small neighborhood school with declining enrollment, innovative teaching methods and strong community ties.

"We were brainstorming ways to increase enrollment at the school and we said, you know, it would be really nice to keep our sixth graders," said Madril, a neatly dressed, delicate looking man with a soft voice. "We were a small family, and we didn't want to let our kids go."

Madril had a background in middle-school education, so when District 11 asked if he would like to make Ivywild a K-8 school, he was delighted.

"Support for the idea came from Sandy [Holland], from the parents, from District 11 and from the community," said Madril, emphasizing the close ties of the school to the surrounding working-class neighborhood.

"If it wasn't for this community, we wouldn't be here. The staff works hard, but when you have that community behind you, that's what makes it run. The church across the street, the neighbors who participate in the Ivywild Improvement Committee, the parents -- it's all their support that makes it work."

Ivywild is a low-income school, determined by the high number of students qualifying for the free lunch program. Historically, Ivywild students have scored low on standardized tests, a distinction that can make or break a school in the new rush to accountability, measured by standardized tests like the Colorado Student Assessment Program, or CSAP. Under Gov. Bill Owens' program, if a school fails to raise its CSAP scores to proficient levels or above, it can be penalized with the withdrawal of funding or programs, and can eventually be threatened with closing.

Ms. Holland's class's CSAP scores have demonstrated marked improvement in math and reading. In the spring of 2001, the class averaged a score of 10 percent in math; by 2002, that score had risen to 41 percent proficient or above, very near the district and state averages. Reading scores over the same time period rose from 25 to 59 percent.

But those scores will not figure into Ivywild's overall accountability rating because of the way CSAPs are structured.

"CSAPs compare third graders and fifth graders scores to the history of the school's CSAP scores," explains Principal Madril. "Because Sandy's class is the first class of its kind at the school, their scores aren't compared to anyone else's. They become a baseline.

"How the state is going to measure our success, I don't know."

Learning by teaching

Ms. Holland's students have three choices for study hall: They can work on their disease research, they can do their social studies vocabulary assignment, or they can be part of the Perseus literary circle.

Their studies this month revolve around Greek mythology taught via the multiple intelligences: musical (Apollo), intrapersonal (Artemis), naturalist (Demeter), logical/mathematical (Hermes), bodily/kinesthetic (Nike), verbal/linguistic (Homer), spatial (Athena), interpersonal (Aphrodite).

The literary circle is the way that a new subject is presented to the entire group, and in this case, the subject is Perseus. Eight students gravitate to the corner of the classroom where Ms. Holland is explaining what is needed.

"This will be extra homework for whoever decides they want to do it," says Ms. Holland. "You can help demonstrate a Perseus literary circle, but it's a lot of work. Ask yourself what's the trade-off. What's in it for you? You've got an hour right now to do the educational activity of your choice."

Four of the students trail off, back to their desks to work on other assignments. The four who stay are asked to volunteer for the tasks of the literary circle.

The Illustrator will draw a full-color illustration of a scene from the Perseus myth. The Word Wizard will define tough, new words or identify names of gods and goddesses that the others may not know. The Discussion Director will come up with five questions and answers that have to do with the myth. The Literary Luminary will cull sentences from the written version of the myth that will illuminate the reading. And the Connector will write a framed, structured paragraph that shows how the myth relates directly to real life.

All of their work will be presented to the class the following day.

The students, two boys and two girls, think hard before volunteering. The seriousness of the task is not taken for granted. The Illustrator, Word Wizard and Literary Luminary accept their jobs and begin working. One of the girls, the Discussion Director, hangs back for a while and discusses her assignment with Ms. Holland.

Ms. Holland's eyes pop open. Her mouth makes a big O. She throws up a high five. "You are it, lady! I love it!" she exclaims. Then, quietly, she asks, "Now are you going to have the courage to really demonstrate that idea to the class tomorrow?"

The girl nods solemnly and Ms. Holland lets out a sigh.

"That makes me the Connector," she says. "It's going to be tough, but I think I can pull it off."

The classroom is abuzz with activity, but the noise level is low.

"Kids this age are screaming for consistency," says Holland. "And here they're getting it. They know what to expect every day. And when it's not working, you'd better believe they let me know."

Earlier in the year, the group complained that there was too much homework.

"We sat down to discuss it," says Ms. Holland, "and they made it clear that they didn't want less work, they wanted more time. You should have seen them plead their case. They were like little lawyers. We just rearranged the day."

And when it looked as if Ms. Holland had more work than she could handle, the leaders in the class noticed.

"They said, 'Why don't you let one of us take over a lower group?'" she explains. With careful supervision, she allowed some of the more advanced readers to teach lessons to their peers.

"You retain 90 percent of what you teach," she says. "They modeled me; they taught and they learned."

Rebecca has been at Ivywild since fourth grade and with Ms. Holland since fifth grade. She doesn't feel that she's missing out by not going to a middle school.

"I think it's better here because if you have the same teacher, she gets to know your patterns," she says. "We get to work with the kindergartners. Ms. Holland says it's fun and all, but it's very hard work in her class. The good thing is if you don't understand, you have a chance to catch up."

Kenny, who has been at Ivywild since first grade says he's getting tired of it. "Being a role model, getting told to be a role model, gets kind of old," he says. "North has lockers; we don't."

But when the subject of Ms. Holland comes up, he struggles to keep a straight face.

"She's like us," he says. "If we have a problem, she'll try to help us solve it. Most teachers don't let their students laugh or anything like that, but she does."

Kenny says he wants to go to North next year and play on the basketball team.

"It'll be a little different," he says. "I won't know how to open a locker."

The middle school conundrum

How best to educate middle schoolers is a hot-potato issue among education experts and reformers. While most everyone agrees on what early adolescents need in a learning environment, few agree on how to provide it.

Children entering adolescence need increasing autonomy and decision-making experience, but traditional junior-high and middle-school classrooms often are authoritarian and rigid. Experts agree that adolescents need to develop relationships with trusted, non-familial adults, but a system that has students changing classes and teachers every hour rarely offers that opportunity for closeness.

"The Future of Children" report of the David and Lucille Packard Foundation for Child Development reports that between 15 and 30 percent of young people in the United States drop out of school before completing high school, and many of the problems that lead to that result begin in early adolescence.

"Some early adolescents see their school grades decline markedly when they enter junior high school, along with their interest in school, intrinsic motivation and confidence in their intellectual abilities," according to the report. And although these changes are extreme for only a minority of adolescents, researchers conclude that "there is sufficient evidence of gradual decline in various indicators of academic motivation, behavior, and self-perception over the early-adolescent years to raise alarm."

The landmark Carnegie Council on Adolescent Development Turning Points report of 1989 concluded that smaller learning communities and smaller classrooms were more effective than larger schools, but the average junior high in America today houses 600 students or more.

K-8 schools, for some educational professionals, like Colorado Education Commissioner William Moloney, represent a practical solution to those problems as well as the problem of diminishing funds and growing populations. New construction can bury a school district in debt, but stretching the capacity of an elementary school to accommodate their fifth graders for three more years is reasonably affordable.

Principal Madril says the system needs both alternatives.

"There's no perfect formula for all adolescents," he said. "Some of the kids in our community choose to go away to middle school and that should be an option. [The bigger schools] offer things that we don't have, but we offer things that are essential to some kids, things they wouldn't get at a bigger school."

"I think it should be like the fast-food court at the mall," he laughs. "You all go there for the same thing, to eat, but you can choose from Chinese food, pizza, hamburgers, Greek, Japanese or Mexican. Students and parents should have a variety of choices."

Terry Lafayette, the parent of a student in Ms. Holland's class, feels her daughter's experience is limited at Ivywild and hopes she will choose to go to North Middle School next year.

"I think she needs different views, different styles," said Lafayette. "I think she needs to change class, she needs cheerleading and football. She doesn't even know what a rival school is, drama club, science club."

Lafayette feels that being the oldest in an elementary school is not necessarily an advantage.

"It's really hard to mature when you're at the top of the heap, when you have no one above you to compare yourself with," she said.

However, when parent Lina Perez offered her daughter, also one of Holland's seventh graders, the option to go to North for eighth grade, her daughter said she wanted to stay at Ivywild.

"I don't like that the kids had to be bussed to North for extracurricular activities," said Perez, "but our PTA is working to see if we can't get an athletic program for them here."

For some parents, like John Robinson, Ivywild's middle years program has been a godsend.

"My son is settled. He's very happy. I suppose he gets enough attention [at Ivywild], where when he was over at West Middle School, he wasn't happy at all. He was lost in the shuffle. No one would listen to him."

Robinson describes his son as a "brainy type," not necessarily into sports. Ms. Holland's teaching style and the environment at Ivywild, he says, have made all the difference in the world in his son's adjustment to school.

"He's becoming a lot more independent in his thinking now," said Robinson. "Maybe that's puberty, but I think he's learning better decision making in school. He's able to talk problems out now instead of hitting."

Robinson doesn't worry that his son is missing out on anything by not attending a traditional middle school.

"We all need security," he said, "and having a teacher who really knows you gives kids security. Ms. Holland knows everything about her students. She knows the parents. She can make allowances for certain situations. She can give the kids a break when there's a problem in the family."

Role models

School is out, but a group of kids linger at the back of Ms. Holland's classroom, playing on computers.

A hefty boy in a heavy coat stares at the screen while a small, wiry classmate watches over his shoulder.

Ms. Holland relaxes in a chair. She has just said goodbye to a student who is moving out of the district and changing schools. Her mother said she couldn't control her and placed her in the care of a family friend, Ms. Holland explains. The girl is brilliant, she says, so smart.

Her students come to her when they are in trouble, she says, not just because they like her but because they have learned to do the right thing as a natural part of their school experience.

"They've taken to heart that they need to have integrity, to do the right thing when nobody's looking," she says. "I've had kids come to me and say, 'I think I need help. I'm stealing. I don't know how to stop.' And I say, 'OK, let's figure out how you can stop. I want you to come and talk to me every day until we've solved this problem.'"

More than anything, she says, she loves watching her students grow.

"I feel so lucky," she says. "I love watching their personalities change, their voices change. Not many teachers get to connect on a personal level."

She tells the story of one of the boys in the back of the room, the smaller one, an African-American with a fine-boned face.

The son of an Army drill sergeant, he grew up on military bases in Germany and spoke German as his first language. He came to Ivywild last year.

"When I first met him, he was really short with me. He would shrug me off," she explains. "One day we were reading and he was staring at the book with a big frown.

"I said to him, 'Do you not want to read with us?' and he looked up with this look." She puts her hand on her breastbone, then traces the tip of her index finger slowly down each cheek. Two big tears. "He couldn't read. He couldn't read English. So we started reading. We started with beginning readers and worked all the way up to the fifth-grade reading list."

"He opened up," she beams. "Gradually he started to talk back. Then one day I feel this hand on my head, and it's him! Messing up my hair! I love it!"

"The last day of school we get our CSAP scores and, can you believe it? I said to the class, he got a proficient in reading on his CSAP! The whole class was clapping and cheering and yelling! He did it!

"He's their role model," she says proudly, glancing back again as the two boys walk out together. "If he can do it, we can do it."


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