When Walker Elementary closes its doors for the summer, it will mark the end of the 13-year-old Blenders program that combined first- through fifth-graders in the same classroom.




Parents are hoping a similar continuous learning community will form in time for the 2009 school year, but they were left with few options for the coming academic year.




"There were a lot parents who felt like crying when they found out Mark was leaving and the program wasn't going to be around any more," said Jennifer Crane, whose daughter is in her second year with the Blenders, taught by Mark Sherbow and Kathleen Mateas. "Some actually did cry."




Crane moved to Ashland four years ago after scouring the country's elementary schools for programs such as the Blenders. She liked the community feel of the program that allowed younger students to learn from their elders and provided opportunities for older students to be teachers and mentors.




"When you teach something you have to know it better, so there was an extra kind of layer of learning that went on," she said.




More support needed




The program suffered a number of hits over the past four years, beginning with the retirement of the Barbara Heyerman, who came up with the concept and started teaching with Sherbow. The teacher hired to replace Heyerman died two years later, and the class moved from Lincoln to Walker, creating less than optimal conditions, Sherbow said.




With diminishing parent support and no teacher expressing interest for the 2008-09 year, Sherbow decided to move to Helman Elementary to teach in a regular classroom.




When Crane learned just before spring break that the program was ending, she went to Superintendent Juli Di Chiro to save it. The e-mail Di Chiro sent to staff seeking a replacement teacher got no response, and the parent meeting for those interested in all types of blended classrooms netted about 25 families, Di Chiro said.




"What we would like to have is more parents who are interested, so we make sure we can construct a balanced classroom," Di Chiro said.




Gender, age level, ethnicity, learning ability and behavior all must be represented proportionately, she added.




Blenders' future




Smaller blended classes will continue in all the elementary schools next year, and a five-year program continuing the year after next is still a possibility, according to Di Chiro.




Sherbow is undecided but still open to returning to a Blenders-type program in 2009.




"If these parents want to go with it next year, I'm totally open to trying something out," he said.




For him, the class was a chance to form a community that became like family with another teacher and a group of kids.




"When you have a kid that's going to stay with you for five years, you can develop strengths and skills in that kid over time," he said. "The disadvantage would be that the number of age peers is going to lessen more than in a traditional class. It can be an issue if you have kids that don't get along or you have some challenging kids."




The largest continuous learning community is now the John Muir School, a K-8 school that grew out of a program similar to the Blenders. But that school is near capacity with little turnover.




Sarah Verducci hoped to get her children into what is now John Muir since her oldest, a third-grader, started school, but they have so far been unsuccessful. Instead they seem to bounce between blended classes each year without the advantage of sticking with the same teacher.




"We've been continually pursuing it and have had very little luck getting into one and staying in one," Verducci said. "I'm trying to make choices that will give my children a stronger community base with their class, and each year they seem to start over from scratch again. It's very frustrating."




Although many parents she talks to don't seem to be aware of the continuous learning communities available in Ashland, Verducci is holding out a cautious hope that another option will be available a year from now.




"I honestly feel a little bit anxious about it being up in the air," she said.




Crane plans to work with the administration throughout the year to make sure that option is available and believes more parents would be interested if they knew the advantages of learning communities.




"I think there are more people out there, but they don't know about it or think John Muir is the only alternative," she said.




Staff writer can be reached at 482-3456 ext. 227 or .