Ogden's New Bridge, model for proposed new schools, gets high marks

Monday , October 30, 2017 - 5:15 AM1 comment

TIM VANDENACK, Standard-Examiner Staff

OGDEN — Among the best things about New Bridge School, says Tracie O’Dell, are the varied spaces her son and other kids have for instruction.

There’s the sixth-grader’s homeroom classroom, of course. But just outside a sliding glass door from the room, there’s a large common area, where kids from his class and two other sixth-grade classes at New Bridge frequently meet for collective instruction.

“I personally love the fact that the kids can interact,” O’Dell said, and aren’t just confined to their homeroom. “It’s amazing to see them all come together as a team and see it happen.”

RELATED: Ogden schools are smaller than Weber, Davis schools, despite bond worries

Plans to build three new elementary schools, a key prong of Ogden School District’s proposed $106.5 million bond issue, have prompted concerns and questions from some, particularly the proposal to rebuild Polk Elementary. The bond proposal, which also calls for a new gym at Ben Lomond High School and new collaborative classrooms at two junior high schools, is on the city ballot, with mail-in balloting still going and voting to finish Nov. 7.

But for O’Dell and other parents at New Bridge, the new school — which opened its doors last year and would serve as the model in some key respects for the new schools — has been a big success. The prospects of a new school, especially one modeled after New Bridge, shouldn’t be cause for concern or alarm for parents, they say. To the contrary, New Bridge, at least, has created new opportunities, says Katy VanderDoes, mother of a second-grader at the school.

“It’s an environment where learning is exciting and I think the building does contribute to that,” she said. “It’s definitely opened up new possibilities to the kids at New Bridge.”

Story continues below photo.

Likewise, the size of New Bridge — 627 kids, making it one of the biggest elementary schools in the district, according to district stats — hasn’t been a negative. Some critics of the bond plans worry the proposed elementary schools, capable of housing as many as 800 kids, would be too big, that they’d lose their personal touch and children would get lost amid a sea of faces.

RELATED: Polk Elementary community voices concerns with potential school rebuild

“I walk the halls and I know every single teacher,” VanderDoes said. Her son, Benjamin, “knows the third-grade teachers He knows the sixth-grade teachers. He knows everybody in that school and they know who he is.”

As is, Polk has a projected enrollment of 303 for the 2017-2018 school year. The other schools that would be rebuilt per the bond plans, T.O. Smith and Horace Mann elementary schools, have current estimated enrollments of 493 and 419, respectively. 

‘Work as a team’

To be sure, the exterior look of the three new elementary schools, among other things, would vary from each other and New Bridge. But Rich Nye, the Ogden School District superintendent, says one of the aims is to replicate the classroom format at New Bridge, with classrooms of each grade clustered around a common area. It’s a goal across the district, but the design of some schools doesn’t lend itself to such mixing.

At New Bridge, each pod, as they’re called, has four classrooms, two on each side of the common area, akin to a hallway but wider and designed to accommodate teaching activities. Each classroom is separated from the common area by large glass walls with sliding doors to give access.

“I think all children deserve that chance to come together and work as a team and not just (in) individual classrooms,” said O’Dell, president of the New Bridge Parent Teacher Student Association.

The ability to collaborate across classrooms permits teachers to “play to the students’ strengths,” said VanderDoes. “I’ve seen multiple kids out there reading. I’ve seen major collaborative efforts.”

Click the link below to see a 360-degree photo of a fifth-grade pod at New Bridge:

Having a common area allows the teachers of a given grade level to offer instruction to kids from other homerooms, providing kids with exposure to more adults and their varied ideas and areas of expertise, Nye said. It also allows for focused instruction of kids with similar needs across a grade level and gets kids interacting with their peers in other classrooms.

“It increases the friendships and social learning,” said Jessica Smith, the New Bridge librarian.

Like VanderDoes, Smith doesn’t see New Bridge’s relative large size as a problem. She herself knows all the students’ names, she says.

Likewise, Nye said the proposed school sizes hardly represent a radical departure from educational norms. The three new elementary schools would each be capable of handling up to four classes per grade, or around 800 kids, not that they would reach that capacity. Currently, Polk, Horace Mann and T.O. Smith, the schools to be rebuilt, accommodate two to three classes per grade, for the most part, according to district figures.

“We’re not living on the edge,” Nye said. The district proposal isn’t “so far out the norm that we’re breaking new ground on school size.”

As is, average elementary school size last year in Ogden, 498, was smaller than in the Weber and Davis school districts and among Utah public schools as a whole, according to Utah State Board of Education data. The figures in the Weber and Davis districts were 611 and 609, respectively, and 587 across Utah.

Likewise, 78 percent of Ogden elementary schools housed 600 students or less compared to just 56 percent in the Weber district and 53 percent in both the Davis district and the state as a whole.

Class size, ‘caring adults’

At any rate, Nye said there wouldn’t be a jump in classroom size at Polk, T.O. Smith or Horace Mann if they’re rebuilt, even if the overall enrollment numbers were to grow. “Our commitment to class size is to keep them small,” he said, and teachers would be hired to keep the student-teacher ratio steady.

And class size, perhaps, is a more germane number than school size. Class size, at least, is a key component in some other factors that bear closely on academic performance, according to Louise Moulding, an education professor at Weber State University.

Building a trusting, caring relationship with a child is key in performance, she said, and that can be easier when a teacher has fewer students to oversee. Parental support, too, is key.

“All of those things can be present in a big school and lacking in a small school and vice versa,” Moulding said. “I think more important than anything is class size and the caring adults that build relationships with students.”

Contact reporter Tim Vandenack at tvandenack@standard.net, follow him on Twitter at @timvandenack or like him on Facebook at Facebook.com/timvandenackreporter.

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