Kassi Schmitz, an eighth-grader at Clancy School, likes going to math class.
Not so much because math is the greatest subject in the world, but because her teacher, Eric Peterson, knows how to motivate kids and make the class fun for students.
“Mr. Peterson is hilarious and gives all of us nicknames,” Schmitz said on a recent morning as she sat in the Clancy School library next to fellow eighth-grader Serena Stiles.
Peterson’s nickname for her is Serena Bumblina.
When he asks a student to dim the lights in the classroom, he always uses a funny voice or does an impersonation, Schmitz said.
“It makes your relationship with the teacher that much closer,” she said. “He will make jokes and it’s just so fun to go to math, even though you may not like the subject.”
Talking to students, teachers and administrators at Clancy reveals that these close relationships are typical at the K-8 school, which has a student body of just 260.
But just because students get to joke around with teachers — and even with Bruce Dunkle, the school’s principal of eight years — doesn’t mean the kids aren’t challenged academically. In fact, it’s the opposite: an A on an assignment takes a score of 96 or higher at Clancy School.
“That really trains the kids that they work hard to earn the grades they earn,” said Tami Scott, a third-grade teacher at Clancy who has taught for 32 years.
“The easiest thing to do when they don’t turn in an assignment is to say, ‘Eh, you don’t get credit for it.’ End of story,” said Ted Polette, an eighth-grade science teacher, as he sat next to Scott on a recent morning. “But in my class they get one freebie for the quarter for science ... every one after that is a zero, but I don’t let them get off the hook. They still have to make it up for me, so it’s kind of like baseball, three strikes and you’re out — they actually get a detention.”
Polette, who also teaches K-8 health enhancement, coaches volleyball and coaches students for science competitions, has been at Clancy for 25 years.
“The children prize their education. They are totally committed to it,” he said, his upbeat personality radiating.
Both Stiles and Schmitz backed up Polette’s assertion, confirming they’re OK with the tough grading system.
“I like it like that because it makes me want to work harder so I can get on honor roll,” Stiles said.
“The teachers, all of them, strive to make sure you get that higher grade,” Schmitz said. “If you don’t understand something, they make time for you before or after school, so you know you can achieve that grade, even if it is a higher grading scale.”
The teachers’ dedication and students’ academic drive shows up in the kids’ test scores.
In the 2010-2011 school year, 95 percent of Clancy students tested grade-level proficient in reading and 83 percent tested proficient in math, according to information provided by Dunkle.
Clancy is also known for doing well in academic competitions. In the most recent state Science Olympiad competition, students from the school took first place. In the 2013 MathCounts southwest regional competition, Clancy students took first place. Clancy kids also took first place in the most recent state Academic Olympics competition.
“I’m very, very proud of our kids that excel in competitions and do well in MathCounts and all those types of things,” Dunkle said, adding that he’s equally proud of the kids who have struggled academically that the school has been able to help turn around.
He says the goal is to get 90 percent of students to test grade-level proficient in math, and to achieve that end, the school has been adjusting its math curriculum.
Clancy students in fourth, fifth and sixth grades now learn math in a tiered program that helps teach kids where they’re at, he said.
“If we have a sixth-grader that is at the fourth-grade level in math, it doesn’t do much to teach them sixth-grade math,” Dunkle said.
He also said similar efforts are made at Clancy to make sure that kids are learning at grade-level by the time they’re in the third grade because after they reach that age range it becomes much harder to help them recover lost ground academically.
“I guess the other thing that I would bring out would be that we have a small school atmosphere, and with that small school atmosphere comes tremendous community support,” Dunkle said. “Like in Academic Olympics, we have several parents, grandparents (and) people that don’t have kids here in school that come in and work with those kids (both in) small groups and one-on-one.”
To help kids succeed and see the value of education, Scott, Polette and Dunkle mentioned a number of ways teachers at Clancy “go the extra mile” to engage kids.
Scott recently helped first- and third-grade students create illustrated audio stories for iPods. The older kids helped write the stories and the younger kids drew the pictures.
“They record it on iPod and then we get together and have a celebration,” she said. “We post them (the stories) and present them on our smartboard in the classroom. That engages kids.”
“Mr. Polette has been to NASA, so he brings those real-life NASA experiences to the classroom,” Dunkle said. “Today he’s showing slides of the Saturn V, which he actually saw.”
Polette said having a supportive administration and school board is huge part of Clancy School’s success with kids.
He’s taken students up in airplanes, scuba diving, golfing, hiking on Mount Helena and even on tours through a cement plant so the kids can see the real-world application of science.
“Without administrative support, you don’t get anywhere,” he said. “I just take ideas to them and they say, ‘Yeah, go for it.’”
The fact that Clancy School is a K-8 school also provides some unique opportunities for students to build relationships with each other and with their teachers.
Polette teaches each Clancy student every year in his health enhancement class.
“I get to establish a relationship with them all the way from kindergarten through the eighth grade,” he said, which lets him skip the “getting-to-know-each-other period” when students make it to his eighth-grade science class.
“When they hit the classroom, we’re off and running, so I can be more productive with them,” he said.
At Clancy, older students are also encouraged to interact and mentor younger students.
“I don’t want to call it peer mentoring, but littles with the bigs,” said Kevin Flatow, the school’s counselor. “When you have a K-8 environment that is our size, it’s got more of an intimate feel to it, and a lot of the younger kids know the middle-school students and vice versa.”
Last year, Polette even had his eighth-grade science students do a special lab on simple machines with first-grade students.
“They get to ask the eighth-graders questions, which the eighth-graders then have to be able to explain it to them, so they have to know their stuff better, too,” he said.
“I’m very proud of being a part of this school,” Dunkle said. “It’s a great school. It’s not perfect; we don’t do everything exactly right, but we work really hard. It’s just great to see kids leave here with the tools and the skills that they need to be successful at the next stop.”
Positive social skills always come in handy, and Stiles and Schmitz say they love the interaction they have with younger students.
“I’ve been here since second grade, so as we grew up we always had the older grades act like older brothers and sisters to us and help us out in the lunchroom and everything like that,” Schmitz said. “So it’s really cool to be the older kids that are helping the little ones tie their shoes or zip up their zippers.”
“The younger kids don’t have to be scared of us because we’re really nice,” Stiles said, adding “My parents didn’t go to college, so I just want to strive to get there and do good in life — it starts at school.”
Reporter Eddie Gregg: 447-4081 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Eddie Gregg on Twitter.com/IR_EddieGregg.