The Little School That Could
Source: Mail Tribune
June 4, 2005
Medford, OR -- As buses filled with students pull away from Ruch Elementary after school, a second shift of classes for homeschoolers gears up inside.
Youngsters do the hokeypokey in the music room, while next door, older students answer simple questions in Spanish.
"Our friends organized this way to support our family and let us support the school," says homeschool mom and Sterling Creek Road resident Gabriela Morrison, who sat in on her son Paiute’s Spanish class while daughter Terra was in music.
The homeschool-support program at Ruch Elementary is part of a community plan to keep the little school open after the district considered closing it because of shrinking enrollment and tight budgets.
After district officials said in October they might close the school to save money, Ruch residents rallied, claiming the school as the heart of their rural community. The district agreed to keep the school open at least one more year to give supporters a chance to increase enrollment — and the revenue that the state provides to schools based on the number of students — and cut costs.
To draw students, Ruch Elementary started a homeschool-support program last month and in the fall will offer a combined seventh and eighth grade. To cut costs, the school will teach on a four-day schedule next fall.
For the homeschool-support program, the district contracted with Rogue Education and Development Institute, a private, nonprofit program in Central Point that provides art, music, Spanish, math, science, language arts and physical education.
Homeschoolers register for the program, and the school district gets state funding for these students. Under the contract, the institute gets 80 percent of that money — up to $7,833 in this spring’s pilot program — and the district keeps the rest.
Institute director Rose Cossairt says 12 homeschool students have signed on in Ruch and 10 of them are new to the READ program.
"With homeschoolers, growth is by word of mouth so it takes time for parents to know about us," she says.
She’s pleased with the developing relationship, praising both the involved parents she’s met in Ruch and school officials who welcome the homeschoolers. The institute and school officials are working on a contract for next year, she says.
For the seventh- and eighth-grade program, the district has hired Scott Stemple, an Ashland native currently teaching in Beaverton. He will teach core classes from the state’s curriculum and community volunteers will offer a variety of electives, says Meg Gustafson, who coordinates the volunteer elective and enrichment program.
She’s compiled a list of nearly 50 people willing to share skills and knowledge with kids. Electives offered the first quarter next year include ceramics, chorus, computers, Spanish and woodworking.
"We’ll have lots of flexibility," Gustafson says, explaining that teachers, parents, students and volunteers will work together to select elective offerings from a list of possibilities that range from architectural design to yoga. The seventh- and eighth-graders also will take the lead in developing a community nature park on a wooded area on the school property and many of their electives will link to that project.
Gustafson says her sixth-grade son is eager to continue at Ruch instead of going to McLoughlin Middle School in Medford like his older brother did.
"He likes the small classes here," she says.
Ruch students can choose to attend middle school or remain at the country school. The teachers and parents who developed the Ruch seventh- and eighth-grade program want to attract current sixth- graders, especially those who might leave public schools for smaller classes at private schools, and homeschoolers, who plan to attend public high school and might like a gradual transition, Gustafson says.
The program must have at least 22 students by August, says Ruch head teacher Cinda Christie. It already has 19 students signed up and has received calls from other interested parents.
To complement the enrollment- and revenue-boosting plans, the school board approved a four-day week for Ruch school. By trimming utility, food-service and busing costs, the schedule should save the school between $6,000 and $10,000 a month, says Galen Anderson, the district’s director of business and facilities.
Teachers will work four nine-hour days each week and eight hours every other Friday for preparation time and meetings, says fourth- and fifth-grade teacher Gail Kuzma, who helped create the schedule.
The schedule will increase the amount of time primary pupils spend in class by roughly 36 hours a year. Kindergartners, who previously spent only 2 hours and 45 minutes a day at school, will go for four hours and 15 minutes and be served lunch.
Parents seem to like the extended kindergarten schedule. Christie says at kindergarten roundup May 18, enrollment was up 60 percent from this year. In a rural area, long drives or bus rides can discourage parents from bringing kids in for short school days, she says.
Last month the school sent home 143 surveys about the four-day week and 133 surveys were returned, Christie says. Of those returned, 91 percent favored the change.
Kuzma says the schedule would give families more time together, less travel to and from school and a free weekday for running errands in town. Four-day schedules have reduced absenteeism at other rural schools that have adopted them, and Ruch hopes to see the same results, she says.