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Teaching Responsibility Oregon Elementary School Covers The Basics, Then Has Kids Direct Their Learning

Sun., Jan. 4, 1998

Teachers at Corridor Elementary School trust their students in ways little and large.

They assume the children can get to the lunchroom without being lined up and walked there. They believe the students in the juggling corps can manage machetes and torches without burning or maiming anyone.

This month, the teachers trusted the Corridor Winter Choir to stand toe-to-wheelchair with a row of seniors at the Good Samaritan Center to deliver a holiday medley. The audience was tough, but the Corridor children know how to handle a tough performance situation. By the time they are in fifth grade, they have six years of onstage experience - and discipline.

They know how to hop into a costume and get on stage, how to wait silently in the wings for an hour or more, how to sing with mouth open wide, diaphragm pumping and arms at their sides.

“We develop a responsibility in kids at a very early age,” said Jeanne Ruiz, a third-grade teacher. “We teach them how responsibility makes your life work.”

The lesson permeates everything the students at Corridor do. It’s a public school operating on public money within the Eugene School District. It’s also an alternative school, which means the faculty has latitude with curriculum and operations.

New students are chosen by lottery. Consequently, from the start, students and their parents feel lucky.

The school is strict, children and their parents say. If a child is caught cursing or fighting, the teachers automatically call the parents. The behavior could earn them a “send home,” which means the students aren’t allowed to attend the following day.

Corridor students must perform academically as well. They outscore their peers on the statewide assessments, and they continually rank with Eugene’s five or six top-scoring grade schools.

Corridor children learn to be disciplined with their homework, beginning with work sheets that go home at night and come back completed the next day. By the fifth grade, the students are given a week’s worth of assignments in a packet on Monday, and they have to have them done and back by Friday.

Students are strongly motivated to keep up. At Corridor, the school day is broken in two. In the morning, students are divided into traditional grades, and their teachers give them the basics - reading, writing, science and math.

In the afternoon, students go to electives based on their interests, not their ages. Students in first through fifth grades learn side-by-side such subjects as microscopes, fossils, chess (taught by the custodian), totem poles, stuffed-bear sewing and introduction to juggling.

Students behind on their academics aren’t allowed to attend the afternoon electives. They have to study with their books and work sheets until they catch up.

Students soon learn that if they want to get anywhere, they have to play their teachers’ game. Once the students learn, the teachers pile experiences on them. As Ruiz says, “We can take our kids places.”

Principal Mike Garling has taken his troupe of elementary school jugglers to a presidential inauguration. The jugglers perform 15 or 20 times a year around Eugene.

In November, the Corridor Winter Choir is formed. First-grade teacher Diane Gerot has rehearsals during the afternoon electives periods.

Each year, the choir learns a new medley of original songs written by Gerot.

If Jerry Lee Lewis were dead, she would be his reincarnation. Gerot writes reggae. She writes salsa. She writes until her kids nearly bop out of their Sunday bests.

While the kids sing, Gerot is up off the piano bench, pounding the keys, smiling, singing and punctuating the music with “Woo” or “Yeah.”

Audiences respond. Nursing home residents clap so hard you’re afraid they might get hurt.

The Capital Rotunda rang with applause for the Corridor Winter Choir on the night of the governor’s tree-lighting ceremony. After the performance, as flush-cheeked fifth-grader Holly Wilt was about to board the school bus, she turned to Ruiz, her teacher, and said, “Oh, Jeanne, it was worth it.”

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