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Ohio charter school surmounts age, achievement barriers.

Last fall, at the start of her son's third-grade year, Cheryl McArthur took "a leap of faith" by transferring him from a private school, where he had been since pre-kindergarten, to The Intergenerational School (TIS). She had been frustrated with the private school's lack of concern about his lagging performance, particularly in math, and feared he was reaching a critical age when boys "often don't catch up and become turned off to school. And I did not want that to happen to Jason," she said.

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With one child just graduating from college and another on the way there, McArthur was in search of an affordable, quality education when she came across a local television news story about the Cleveland public charter school. TIS, which is open to any resident of Ohio regardless of academic history, made headlines in 2006 as the only charter school in the state to be rated "excellent" for three consecutive years. Serving roughly 120 children in kindergarten through seventh grade (TIS is expanding to eighth grade this year), it was also just one of 21 high-poverty schools statewide to be recognized as a "School of Promise" for having at least 75 percent of all students pass Ohio's standardized reading test. Its principal, a former psychologist who specialized in child development, cofounded TIS in 2000 on the belief that children should be taught according to their developmental learning stages. Classes are kept small and instruction individualized, which is enhanced by the longstanding support of volunteer senior citizens who mentor children one-on-one. And, with the school's strong emphasis on literacy, there is even a book club that involves both parents and children meeting together to discuss the assigned text.

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Immediately following the news show's broadcast, McArthur called TIS with plans to enroll Jason for the 2006-07 school year. "I was excited about my child's education in a way that I had not been since he started school," she said.

Her faith was rewarded. On the state's 2007 exam, Jason proved proficient in math--a mastery that also was evident in his schoolwork, on his report cards and in a renewed devotion to learning the subject. (In fact, for the past two years, 100 percent of TIS' third-graders have scored proficient or above in both math and reading.) McArthur admits that it took a lot of extra work to build up her son's skills, but points out that Jason is well-prepared this fall for the fourth grade--or, as the school qualifies it, the "refining" stage.

At TIS, classrooms are based on six stages of developmental learning that overlap traditional grade levels: emerging (K-1); beginning (1-2); developing (3); refining (4); applying (5-6); and leadership (7-8).

Students are grouped into multiage settings in which they are up to three years apart in age and may have the same teacher for more than one year. However, the school officially reports a grade for each child and defines each stage by a set of learning objectives that coincide with the state's standards. The curriculum, intended to graduate students who are ready for high school and aiming for college, was designed by Principal Cathy Whitehouse.

Prior to creating TIS, while working as a psychologist with children who had learning disabilities in Cleveland, Whitehouse realized, "although many children could still adjust and do okay, the children I was working with needed school to be much more geared toward the way they learned and what they needed."

She said the need for a learner-centered developmental education program--one that relies not on repetition of coursework for its struggling students but instead on continuous progression toward a new stage of understanding and knowledge--could not have been more apparent than on the day she opened TIS. "When I have a five-year-old who walks in the door and doesn't know a single letter, doesn't know how to color or cut, doesn't recognize his name, that child is already two years behind."

By mastering the learning objectives, children progress from one stage to the next at any time, which is usually at the trimester mark when the school administers a round of assessments.

Teacher Silvia Kruger, who joined TIS six years ago, said developmental education may sound complicated but believes that it is simply an innovative approach to what many schools already face. "Especially in the inner city, you're going to have kids who are incredible readers and kids who can barely read. So developmentally, even though you shove them in one grade, they're all at different spectrums."

Consequently, the individualized instruction, which requires teachers to know the skill level of every child, has allowed the staff to address the individual needs of TIS' largely ethnic minority population, nearly two-thirds of whom come from low-income families. Small class sizes averaging 16 students per teacher guarantee that personal touch. (The ratio for one "emerging" class last year was 9 to 1.)

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Overall, Whitehouse says the atmosphere at TIS feels like a family, especially with the participation of 30 senior citizen volunteers who work daily with the children one-on-one as mentors in reading and other subjects along with after-school activities that include museum visits. She envisions the school as a community hub for lifelong learning, remarking, "Age is not the relevant variable when it comes to learning. Schools should be places where people of all different ages can come and participate together in learning activities that are of common interest to them."

Both Whitehouse and her husband, Peter, a geriatric neurologist who also specializes in cognitive disorders, founded TIS on the philosophy that "intergenerational learning creates a sharing of wisdom among the generations." It seemed, therefore, ideal to locate the school at his office building, the Fairhill Center, a nonprofit campus of services dedicated to successful aging. TIS leases nine rooms on the second floor, which has afforded them close connections to many of the center's patrons, particularly, as Principal Whitehouse adds, a growing group of grandparents who have become caregivers for their grandchildren.

These relationships are so central to the mission of TIS that the school has developed partnerships with several nursing care facilities across Cleveland. Once a month, children read to senior residents, recite poems and collect oral histories, among other activities.

Maureen Weigeand, who transferred her granddaughter to TIS six years ago when she was in the second grade, feels the intergenerational programming has been an educational bonus because it teaches Kara to value people, regardless of age. "I'm crushed that we have to look for something else for her after eighth grade," she said, "because it's just been the best school experience we could have ever hoped for."

The Intergenerational School

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Grade Span: K-8

Locale: Urban

Total Students: 145

Race/Ethnicity Enrollment: 91% African-American, 4% white, 4% multiracial, 1% Asian

Free and Reduced-Price Lunch Eligible: 62%

English Language Learners: 0%

Special Education Students: 8%

Percentage Proficient: In reading, 100%; in math, 100% (based on third-graders assessed on the 2007 state exam).

Interesting Fact: The Intergenerational School was the only charter school in 2006 to be rated "excellent" by the state of Ohio for three consecutive years.
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Title Annotation:Bridging the Gap
Author:Ashby, Nicole
Publication:The Achiever
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 1, 2007
Words:1184
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