By MARTA HEPLER DRAHOS
TRAVERSE CITY — When the bell rings Monday at the Traverse City Seventh-day Adventist School, Steven Champion will welcome back his students — all 10 or 11 of them — as the school's only teacher. But that's not all.
Champion is also principal of the small one-room school for students in grades K-8. Opening-day traditions include measuring the students, from small to tall, for the single classroom's adjustable desks.
The school, organized in 1908 near downtown Traverse City, moved to a new joint school-church facility in 2000. Located at the corner of Three Mile and Hammond, it's just a mile from the old-fashioned one-room schoolhouse known as the Black School, built in the late 1800s.
Like the old schoolhouses, Champion's modern one-room school oversees the education of students from tots to teens. That's reflected in the classroom's decor, from a reading loft and an alphabet chart for the younger kids to science models for their elders. Sports are for fun rather than competition.
But unlike the old-time schools, 'We're very connected to the world through computers," Champion said. "There's nothing isolated about this one-room school."
Despite their emotional, social and developmental differences, students in the multi-grade classroom do better than their counterparts, Champion said. According to CognitiveGenesis, a study that assesses the achievement level in Adventist schools compared to national norms, Adventist school students score a half-grade-level higher in all subjects on average.
"One of the things that makes our education unique is that it connects home, church and school. It's like a three-legged stool," said Champion, whose daughter, Yanah, 8, is one of his pupils. "Another difference is that our curriculum is centered in Christ and his work."
Champion said his students stay on subject "pretty much together," though assignments and materials may differ according to grade level. The system not only encourages cooperation but also emphasizes working independently and developing time management and organizational skills.
"The teacher has to circulate a lot and the kids have to work independently and stay engaged," he said. "We very seldom divide. That's a strength of a one-room community school. These students become almost like brothers and sisters to each other. They can learn from each other." Adjusting their interactions from younger to older kids also helps students improve their social skills, he said.
"Sometimes it's more of a challenge because the little kids can get louder," said Zlata Champion, one of the school's three substitute teachers and a teachers assistant. "There's a little more distraction than a traditional classroom."
Steven Champion grew up a Seventh-day Adventist but attended public schools. He planned to teach in a public school system after graduating from the University of Wisconsin with a bachelor's degree in elementary education. But budget cuts directed him toward Christian education instead.
The Traverse City school is supported by tuition — $185 a month — and by the 200-member church congregation. Church volunteers use their expertise to help with programs like Career Day and music, which takes place an hour a week for fun and expression. They also help with field trips to places like the Boardman River Nature Center, the History Center of Traverse City, the Music House Museum and Handz On Art.
"That's a nice thing," Champion said. "We have a resource in the church."