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Kids Finding Own Path Tribal School Molds Itself To Each Student’s Needs

The first-grader arrived in Bill Ruff’s class last year with a checkered past.

Out of control in his previous school, for six weeks he was isolated in his own room, with his own lunch and his own recess.

Ruff discovered why when the boy assaulted a visitor, cut a teacher’s dress with scissors, pulled hair and threw punches.

This year, at the Coeur d’Alene Tribal School, one of the boy’s biggest problems is his tendency to rush through math problems.

“We had about two months of sorting out pain and hurt for being separated and isolated for so long,” Ruff said as the lanky Native American boy worked on math problems at a nearby table. “Now you can’t tell him apart from anybody else.”

Ruff, 47, has made an imprint on his students’ lives and the tribal school since he joined the teaching staff last year.

Individual instruction and a relaxed learning atmosphere are spreading through the school with his influence.

His philosophy is to design the school around the needs of its 70 students, rather than around the needs of the teachers. The result is that more children and teachers look forward to going to school, discipline problems are on the decline and learning is taking place.

“I like school. My favorite hobby is school,” said third-grader James Lasart, who spent his free time in a loft near the ceiling making a jungle out of Legos and toy animals.

This summer, the school staff knocked out walls between classrooms in the temporary school building, and built reading and play lofts for the children. They moved more computers into the classrooms and purchased the latest educational toys and materials.

Each child gets individual assignments every day. At any given time in the lower grades, a few students will be working on computers, while others are working on math problems, drawing, creating machines with Legos, or writing about what they’ve done.

Older students have more complex assignments and fewer opportunities to play.

When they finish one task, they sign off on their assignment sheet and move on to the next task.

When all the assignments are done, students are free to choose an activity that doesn’t disturb those still at work.

The system would be easier if the teachers had another pair of eyes in the backs of their heads.

“J.J., that’s not your project,” Ruff called over to a small brown-haired boy who was driving a snakelike Lego vehicle over a tabletop.

“I’m done,” the big-eyed J.J. Lahey said, indicating the poster he drew on the easel.

“OK, where’s your sheet then,” Ruff answered, temporarily abandoning another student as he looked for J.J.’s list of assignments.

“We lose at least one assignment sheet a day,” he muttered during his search.

Because the new method is more labor-intensive and requires more planning and flexibility, Tribal School Superintendent Austin Buckles agreed to let students out by 1 p.m. every Wednesday so teachers can spend the afternoon planning. He doesn’t see his staff wasting much time.

“These teachers are here a lot earlier and stay a lot later,” he said.

When Ruff brought his approach to Desmet, “I saw a definite change in the attitudes of a lot of kids,” Buckles said. “It was time for a change, so we’re changing it.”

The staff is hoping the new approach also will help turn around the estimated 60 percent drop-out rate among tribal students.

Ruff said he didn’t have the same kind of support in the public schools on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation in Montana, where he started teaching three years ago.

A former Ford salesman in Northern California, Ruff returned to college for an elementary education degree after a divorce, two-year illness and dissatisfaction with his own children’s education.

“I came here and getting all the support is like dying and going to heaven,” said the graying, slightly weathered Ruff.

Ruff works alongside a special education and a kindergarten teacher in a double classroom for 30 kindergarten through second-grade students. Their room is connected to the combined third- through fifth-grade class next door, which has 20 students, three teachers and an aide.

This is the first year for team-teaching in a combined class of upper elementary grades. Although one family decided to pull their children out of the school to protest the changes, teachers say most of the feedback is positive.

“About six students transferred in when they heard about the K-2,” said teacher Ruth Klansky. “I think we’ll see more and more enthusiasm as this progresses.”

Klansky is so impressed, she moved her own two sons from the public schools to Ruff’s classroom. Klansky started working at the tribal school three years ago after teaching in private Catholic schools back East.

Her first year in DeSmet was terrible. In a traditional classroom with several frustrated students, she spent 70 to 80 percent of her time trying to get them to behave and pay attention.

“I just didn’t know what to do,” she said. Now, because of the teaching style she’s adopted from Ruff - and even with a high percentage of special needs students - things run relatively smoothly.

“At first some of them feel like it’s chaos. But it’s really structured chaos,” she said.

The teachers make a point of dealing with discipline problems. Interior doors have taken a beating due to the angry kicks of a few troubled children.

Inappropriate behavior (including Ninja kicks) is punished with a “time-out” in the small hallway leading to the bathrooms in the middle of the mazelike double classroom.

More effective than timeouts is the lack of motivation to misbehave, teachers said. Children can’t interrupt the whole class and get everyone’s attention when all the students are doing their own thing.

And because students work at their own pace, the frustration of having to wait for everything has disappeared.

Behavior has improved in the computer laboratory and on the playground, said teacher’s aide Robert Lasarte.

“If they don’t behave, I make them go to the wall for five minutes,” Lasarte explained over his hot lunch Wednesday. “This year, there’s hardly any kids on the wall. I think it’s because of the (new) program.”

Bad behavior often dwindles once students succeed academically, the teachers said. In Ruff’s classroom, the focus is on “bottom-loading,” teaching the basics of reading, writing and math.

Ruff is trying to prevent a repeat of the current situation in the third- through fifth-grader classroom where three students still can’t read.

Ruff and his colleagues described their new classroom structure in a plan they’ve submitted to the Bureau of Indian Affairs in hopes of getting some education reform money.

But the secret to classroom success is simpler than the 23-page plan lets on.

“Basically, they know they’re loved here,” Ruff said. “They want to be loved and know their boundaries.”

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