No barriers to learning

A spanking new $11 million elementary school sits less than a mile from St. Nicholas Roman Catholic Church, yet four classes of kindergartners have been attending a makeshift school in the church basement the past school year.
The kids and teachers congregate in one large room with imaginary barriers separating their classes. The only real partition is a long black curtain, hung from the ceiling, that separates the school from the cafeteria.
They work and learn here out of necessity, while their new school -- which some kindergartners have named "The Big House" -- nears completion at the former site of Lyon Plat Elementary. Lyon Plat was torn down last summer.
In the beginning, many parents and teachers were apprehensive about conducting class in this nontraditional environment, where bookshelves mark the entrance to the library.
But things have changed.
Interactive classes: Teachers say their 82 combined pupils are learning better than ever. Administrators beam at the inventive learning process as pupils from different classes interact and often rotate to different learning stations.
"This has been the highest academic class that I've ever had," said Heather Sebest, a teacher with 10 years of experience in the district. "They're reading and writing better."
The school board has agreed to alter plans for its new facility by creating doorways between four proposed kindergarten rooms to promote a similar style of pupil and teacher interaction.
"I've had parents come over to me and say, 'I want to thank you for having my kids there'," said Betty Washington, school principal.
The close quarters have worked out well for first-year teacher Amy Thompson as well.
"Any time I have a question, I have three other teachers who are right there," she said. "Normally you wouldn't have that in a school facility."
Partnership: The district doesn't even pay rent for the facility; instead it makes building upgrades and offers the church free use of district snowplows as needed.
"This is a partnership that was made in heaven," said Superintendent Sandi DiBacco.
The teachers, however, note that they couldn't handle the job by themselves.
Eighth-graders from Struthers Middle School help 30 minutes each day. And teacher Debbie Goist said she's had more parent volunteers than ever before.
Ashley Wilkens, a pupil in Lisa Young's kindergarten class, said she enjoys attending school in the church basement and will miss it next year.
"I love both schools," said the 6-year-old. "I'm going to miss my teacher and all the other helpers in this school."
The pupils are set to move into their new school at the start of the next school year.

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