Grade-based attendance centers in Sidney seeing success

Principal Gene Russel gets some help from students (left to right) Reagan Fish, Rhys Dorcey and Taylor Sprenger in showing off the "West is the Best" display on the floor at the entrance to West Elementary in Sidney. West is the fifth and sixth grade school in Sidney. The elementary schools are grade-based centers.

SIDNEY —The neighborhood grade school has been replaced with grade-based attendance centers in Sidney, and school officials are pleased with the results.

The attendance centers are set up with Pre K-Kindergarten at Central Elementary, first and second grades at South, third and fourth at North and fifth and sixth at West. Sidney has been using the grade-based format for 16 years.

“From an educational standpoint we really like the attendance centers,” Superintendent Jay Ehler said. “Having all the students and teachers in the same place has many benefits. Students get to know more students their own age so they have more friendships and they transition smoothly to the next building. Teachers are able to collaborate with grade-alike teams where all teachers are involved so professional development opportunities are enhanced.”

West Elementary Principal Gene Russel said he likes the benefit of all of the teachers for each grade level being in the same building.

“It’s really neat because then we get every fifth and sixth grade teacher in this whole district in the same building to collaborate and to continually talk where in other districts it might be three K-6 buildings and you have two first grade teachers here in this building and they might not ever talk to the two first-grade teachers in this other building,” Russel said. “It really gives kids that free and fair education to where we’re really on the same page, we understand what’s best for kids because we have all those adults in the same building collaborating all the time.”

Ehler said there have been issues to be addressed, but the district has been able to find solutions.

“The main issues are that we bus across town so we have an expanded need and expense with bussing,” Ehler said. “Students can’t walk to school in many cases so parents need to make sure their children are at the bus stop on time. Those are just minor issues that we work through.”

Russel said the students benefit by staying fresh as they transition to a new school with new expectations every two years.

“Where some other elementary schools might have different philosophies, rigor might be tougher in this school than in that school,” he said. “You might have certain teachers here, but when you get them all in the same building it really sets the bar high for ‘We are the fifth grade team and our job is to get the kids to sixth grade together.’ It’s kind of a cool thing to witness for those that have never seen attendance-based centers. You also don’t have that age discrepancy, so you can do things a lot more age-appropriate.”

Russel said the staff at West does quite a bit of student development every week. There are sessions where the “dudes group” may learn about manners such as a proper handshake or how to tie a tie. In the girls group, they will talk about all things of what it means to grow up to be a girl in today’s society. The lessons can be more age appropriate as opposed to a K-6 school.

“What you want to say to a fifth-grade boy is different than what you want to say to a kindergarten boy,” Russel said.

The level of education in the schools and technology allow teachers to have flexibility in teaching different students, even in a single class period.

“Education, especially in the public schools, is amazing today,” Russel said. “A lot of people don’t get that glimpse inside the window unfortunately, but we have teachers now teaching seven different lessons in one 45-minute time frame because we can use technology to where you might be a math whiz in class and I might struggle to learn math, so the teacher is able to say you can be on lesson 7.2 where Mr. Russel over here is on lesson 2.2, and I can still teach both of you at the same time.”

While other districts have looked at grade-based centers and chosen to stay with the traditional neighborhood school, Ehler said the system has worked for Sidney.

“Every community is different so everyone needs to decide what works best for them,” he said. “In Sidney, we are happy with our set up and the results we have seen.”

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Mark McCarthy is a reporter with the Star-Herald. He can be reached at 308-632-9049 or via email at

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