West Branch: Different style of learning

In West Branch School’s classrooms, grades don’t exist and students learn through personal assessment with their teachers.

Stacie Lakatos’ math class, filled with two eleven year olds a ten year old and a nine year old, learn to use a geometric compass and make acute, obtuse and right angles.

“West Branch School is this community’s best kept secret,” said Lakatos, the head teacher and vice-president of West Branch. After 40 years of operation many in the community still don’t know it exists, Lakatos said.

West Branch School was founded in 1970 by a group of parents who wanted more for their children than what the public schools could provide. These parents were looking for a different style of learning that enabled their children to learn at their own rate and acquire skills to suit their individual needs, according to Lakatos.

The school works to guide their students “socially and academically,” Lakatos said. “We are able to move them up or down based on their needs.”

West Branch currently enrolls 29 students, but has the capacity for between 40 and 45, with the hope of one day reaching that number. As a private institution it draws most of its funds through tuition costs, donations and grants. Tuition for each student is $6,450 per year, with a reduced rate for families with multiple students.

In the school, standardized testing is rarely used, class sizes remain around four and five students and the children continually remain the primary focus of both the classroom and the greater school experience.

“I love it so much I want to stay here until I’m old,” said nine year old Elliot Mckelvey. Elliot loves math, his teachers, his fellow students and school in general. A shy boy when he first came to kindergarten, Elliot soon found his voice at West Branch and can talk to anyone, anywhere for as long as they will let him.

The small class sizes enable hands-on learning and plenty of direct interaction between the student and teacher. Lakatos is able to take multiple direct questions from students while they practice their geometric angles and still have plenty of time to go over the lesson.

Additionally, instead of placing each class in it’s own room down long hallways, West Branch features a style similar to the one-room school house model. Each class is responsible for their own subjects, but they all learn in the same room.

Kindergarteners learn the rudiments of technology at a row of computers that line the wall, while older students scatter on the floor or across the room working on a writing assignment.

“I like how you’re always challenged,” said 10 year old Rowan. “You’re always at your own level, and not everyone else’s.”