At Little Milligan, every student is 'somebody'

By Kathy Helms-Hughes
STAR STAFF
khughes@starhq.com

   A national survey released April 11 has found that children who attend small schools, or less than 1,200 students, are less likely to become at-risk students who resort to drugs, violence, or early sexual activity.
   The students also tend to feel better connected with teachers and fellow students. And teachers who develop strong relationships with students and make them feel like valuable contributors, help them determine this feeling of connectedness. The survey also found that teachers who do this are not necessarily the ones with advanced degrees, nor are they often the most experienced.
   The federally funded National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health surveyed 72,000 students in 127 schools nationwide.
   J.R. Campbell, principal at Little Milligan Elementary School, says small schools have some benefits and some disadvantages.
   "One of the benefits here at Little Milligan is 146 kids. We know all of them by first name. Every kid here is somebody. They're all special from the time they get on the bus in the morning. Some get on the bus at 6 a.m. and we take that into consideration," he said.
   Upper-grade teachers spend a lot of time with students, Campbell said, and when the students leave Little Milligan, they go away knowing their teachers are their friends.
   Teacher Tim Little said, for example, former student Kenny Hartley and his wife had a baby. "On the way home from the hospital, he stopped so we could see his 2-day-old baby boy. This was the first place he stopped. He was proud of it. He wanted his old professor to see his baby."
   According to teacher Jerry Calhoun, "A lot of them, instead of bringing their kids, they bring their first car and we go around the block. It's pretty much tradition."
   "The only Corvette I've driven in over 30 years," Little said, "one of my former students brought it by here. He said, 'Are you still driving that old piece of junk you've got? Look at my car!' They pass us up."
   Campbell said that while students may suffer a little from lack of technology, that is compensated in other ways. "The cooks make sure they don't want. Nobody does without. We don't have to hurry to get through lunch. We can spend a little time with them and laugh with them a little bit. And we know most of their situations. I think that helps.
   "We can tell now who all is going on to college. We looked at the eighth-graders and we feel like maybe we've got five that are going to go on to college out of 18. Of course, it's a small number, but still yet, our kids have all got dreams. We try and analyze maybe what they'll do a little later on and we try to talk to them," Campbell said.
   "I know for a couple of years there, some of the smartest kids in the Top 10 were from here, and that's a credit to Mr. Little, Mr. Calhoun, and the other teachers here at Little Milligan."
   Also, staff from Hampton High School -- where most graduates typically end up -- say Little Milligan students are the most well-behaved, according to Campbell. "Year after year, it's the same story. Naturally we're proud of them."
   One disadvantage to living in the Little Milligan area, Campbell said, is that students with ambition usually end up having to move away.
   "We hate it. We hate they have to leave. We're sort of hillbillies. We like being hillbillies. We feel culture changing because our kids are having to leave because they want to better themselves. It's a real important time, I feel like, in Carter County and Tennessee."
   Denise Ward, a first-grade teacher at Little Milligan, believes in the power of reading, and in spending a lot of "one-on-one with the child." As a result, the children tend to do their homework and bring it to school the next day. "Of course, I'm pretty strict on the homework. They know the rules: No homework, no playtime," she said.
   The Star asked Mrs. Ward's class: "Is she a mean teacher?"
   "No-o-o-o-o," they shouted in unison without hesitation.
   "Does she give you a lot of homework?"
   "No-o-o-o-o," they responded again.
   Ward said one advantage of teaching at a smaller school is getting to know the parents and students better. "It's sort of a family oriented situation. You get to know their family life, you get to know them more as an individual."
   She doesn't believe the school's lack of computers or other high-tech equipment is really hampering students. "I think the students end up getting that," often at home, she said. The school does have some computers, "and more and more they will be getting it as they go to a higher grade.
   "I don't think they're deprived at all. To me, I would do away with the big schools and just add more little schools. I think we would have a lot less drug problems and school violence problems," Ward said.
   First-graders in her class spend most of their time focusing on reading and math.
   "We spend like 2-1/2 hours in reading every day. They do silent reading, they do their DEAR (Drop Everything And Read) time which, they have a pillow they lay on and they can ask me words. It's just a quiet time where they can practice their reading. They really enjoy that.
   "At the very beginning of the year where they're not even reading anything -- from the time school starts until Labor Day -- we're just kind of resting on pillows. A lot of them fall asleep. But then after Labor Day, we start reading books and we start getting more involved in our starter reader. And then they start reading and they end up reading probably seven stories a week."
   Students also read orally and work with the teacher on their accelerated reader.
   "We do a lot of incentive programs with them to encourage them to read. By the end of first grade, they can read all of their directions. I check each page as they go through it, but they have to read the directions so they know what to do on each page.
   "I have to get them ready for second grade. The better they read, the better they'll do in second grade. I push them. You have to," Ward said.