Sunday, March 11, 2007

CAN'T BEAT A K-12 SCHOOL, KIDS SAY: 13 grades under one roof makes for lasting bonds

smf notes: Before one thinks that this is a story of bygone methods still employed in Tennessee, LAUSD is building K-12 programs today - the most notable being the Robert F. Kennedy Learning Complex at the Amabassador Hotel Site.

Caitland, a sophomore at Culleoka Unit School in Maury County, works with kindergartners during class Tuesday. Many of the upperclassmen tutor younger students in the kindergarten-through-12th-grade school for class credit. The school would not give the photographer Caitland's last name. (SANFORD MYERS / THE TENNESSEAN)

by Natalia Mielczarek | Staff Writer | The Tennessean

Sunday, 03/11/07 CULLEOKA, Tenn. — If you grow up here, you go to Culleoka Unit School, no matter whether you're a kindergartner or a senior in high school.

Lunch happens in waves, from 10:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. No kid is anonymous. Friendships are formed for life. Flexibility among principals is a must. One minute they may be helping a junior repair his relationship with a girlfriend and the next advising a kindergartner how to save up for a favorite toy.

Sandwiched between farms in rural Maury County, the school has carried on a tradition that most have abandoned years ago — housing primary and secondary grades under one roof.

Unit schools are a dying breed in Tennessee. Of more than 1,600 public schools in the state, only 21 offer K-12 or pre-K-12 education in one building, according to state figures. The number has been gradually decreasing in the past decade, state education officials said. Of the active unit schools, six are in the Midstate and three in Maury County alone.

"I like it a lot," said Christina Lo, a senior at Culleoka Unit School who started there as a kindergartner. "You do have the same people, but at the same time, they know what you've been through and what you've done."

But sometimes, seeing the same faces for 13 years gets old, Christina and others said. And, because unit schools are generally small, they often can't justify offering a diverse curriculum of advanced courses because of lack of funds to hire additional teachers. Sometimes students end up taking classes at other area high schools.

AP offerings limited

It's up to individual school districts to decide what grade configurations suit them the best, state education officials said. For Mat Meath, a unit school setup had worked well — until he hit a temporary snag last year.

"I like it because I can always go back and visit my favorite teacher and if I need help, she'll help me," Mat said. "In the middle of my junior year, it felt like I didn't have any more opportunities because I've taken all the advanced classes.

"Coming here and knowing that you're going to be stopped at your education, I was in a dead spot. But since then I've started applying myself," he said.

Because the school has only 1,000 students, one-third of whom are in high school, it doesn't offer Advanced Placement classes. Kids take them at another high school or sign up for dual enrollment through an area college to get high school and college credit.

Still, Culleoka Principal Jeff Quirk said that although he wished the school offered a meaty AP curriculum, his students can compete with their counterparts at larger schools. The senior class of 65 has accumulated more than $1 million in college scholarships this year, he said.

Kids learn from peers

Eagleville unit school has two cafeterias, one for grades K-8 and the other for the upper classmen. Like at Culleoka, students at Eagleville also are separated according to elementary, middle and high school grades and rarely interact in hallways.

They do, however, meet in classrooms. Some even get credit for it. Peer tutoring is one of the best aspects of attending a unit school, students said.

"You get to help the younger kids, and you can get help from the older kids, too," said Brandon Koenig, a seventh-grade honor roll student at Eagleville School. "It gives you an opportunity to be a role model to the younger kids."

That's how Steve Cates remembers it. He graduated from Kittrell unit school in Rutherford County in 1959 and taught there from 1963 to 1969.

"The high school students had a mystique for us in the lower grades," said Cates, whose parents and grandmother also went through the school, which closed in the early 1970s, he said.

"The older students were the models. They were the leaders. They had extreme status. When you got to be a senior, you were practically a god. We lost a lot when we lost those schools."

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