Pre-K and kindergarten teacher Christina Engwer reads a story to her class at Savoy Elementary School

SAVOY — The fifth and sixth graders at Emma L. Miller Elementary School say their combined classroom can get really noisy.

That doesn't bother them. They also don’t mind sharing their classroom space, or their teacher, with kids in another grade. In fact, they see some advantages, eavesdropping on the next year’s curriculum, for one. They also don’t appear to mind eating lunch at their desks, holding physical education outdoors rather than in a gym, or having art and other special subjects next door in the library, the site of Savoy’s 1886 one-room schoolhouse.

Even the environment is a plus, as one student explained, saying he likes the wildlife he sees in the school yard, including butterflies.

Some did, however, mind wearing masks to school every day for the full 170-day 2020-2021 school year during the COVID-19 pandemic. Theirs was one of just 14 schools in the state to remain open that entire year. They really groaned, though, as they recalled remote learning during the first part of the pandemic from March to June of 2020.

With 42 students from prekindergarten through sixth grade, Emma Miller runs on an annual budget of less than $1 million. The school has four combined-grade classrooms. Each has one teacher and one assistant. The projected spending in fiscal year 2024's budget is the same as this year's, down to the penny, while enrollment is expected to rise slightly in the 2023-2024 school year. The student to teacher ratio in 2021 was 9.2 to 1; the state average in 2021-2022 was 11.9 to 1.

One early spring day, students in Kim Wells’ third and fourth grade class used their Chromebooks to study their spelling words and to write sentences. They sat on a rug, at a table in small groups. Some students at the school use physio balls, work at standing desks or sit on wobble chairs.

Wells has been at the school for 10 years. At first, she found teaching combined grades overwhelming.

“I wasn’t sure how I was going to manage two grades in one,” Wells said. “It just comes down to establishing really strong routines at the beginning of the year so that when you’re not working with a group, the other children can work independently and not require … constant supervision.”

Today, it still takes Wells twice the lesson planning of a one-grade-level classroom.

But, “I’m used to it now,” Wells said. After teaching single grades in other districts, including in Dalton and North Adams, places she described as “fantastic,” Wells decided to stay in Savoy.

“This place is just so special. It’s more like a family here. I think it’s the small class sizes. Even though it’s double-graded, which is a challenge, you really get to know the students,” Wells said. “I love having them for two years because you really become attached to them, and you can get a really good relationship going with them. I’m always sad when my kiddos move on to the next grade because I’ve had them for two years.”

Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System test scores for students at Emma Miller on file with the state Department of Education in 2022 show an average of 493 both for math and English language arts; 493 was at the high end of the partially meeting expectations bracket. The math score was on par with the statewide average; the English score was one point lower than the state average. MCAS scoring ranges overall from a low of 440 (not meeting expectations) to a high of 560 (exceeding expectations).

Tracey Tierney, principal at Emma Miller, said because of the school's small size, with fewer than 10 students in certain grade levels, data are available only for the school as a whole, but not broken out grade-by-grade.

"I think our students are performing very well, especially if you consider that we're teaching two grade levels in one classroom," Tierney said, adding "I think generally speaking, we're right in line with what the state averages for special education."

The school profile on the state Department of Education’s website lists 17.5 percent of Emma Miller’s population as having disabilities, with 62.5 percent coming from low-income families and 65 percent having high needs. The definition of a high-needs student includes those who may be English-language learners, meet certain income criteria or have individualized education plans.

One way the school and its school union save on costs is by sharing employees. North Berkshire School Union floats a total of 19 staff members among its four schools, including so-called “special” teachers, who teach art, physical education and other subjects. The schools in the union are Clarksburg Elementary, Rowe Elementary, Emma Miller and Abbott Memorial in Florida. 

Of the 42 students at Emma Miller, just 24 live in Savoy; 18 attend through school choice, most of them from Adams, but some are from Cheshire, North Adams and other towns. The school choice students bolster both enrollment and the budget, this year by $100,000, and next year by a projected $70,000.

Superintendent John Franzoni said all four schools in North Berkshire School Union “have high demand for the school choice seats,” because of the small class sizes and low student-to-teacher ratios.

“It's a different atmosphere that some families prefer for their children," he said, "especially these younger grade levels, primarily pre-k through grade six.”

Jamie Hubbard and her husband, Wayne Hubbard, live in Cheshire. They have five children. They decided to send their oldest, Nakiya, to Emma Miller because Wayne Hubbard and his sisters had gone there, Wayne for only two years.

Nakiya's education and experience at the school were so rewarding, Jamie Hubbard said, that the other three school-age Hubbards are now there, even after Nakiya finished sixth grade. That means Jamie is driving them to Savoy, a 25-minute commute one-way, since school choice families are responsible for their own transportation.

Emma Miller is “very inclusive,” Jamie said, explaining that Nakiya enjoyed taking part in a ski club there, and that all four have enjoyed the school.

Jamie Hubbard said she’s noticed that in recent years, there’s a heavier focus on engaging children with reading. She appreciates daily updates on social media showing what’s happening at the school.

“I feel like it's our second family,” she said.

Now 18, Nakiya is a senior at Hoosac Valley High School in Cheshire, to which Emma Miller feeds its seventh and eighth graders. Ninth through 12th graders can choose to go to McCann Technical School in North Adams as well.

Arleigh Cooper lives in Savoy and is the chair of the local School Committee.

Her daughter, Kali, 7, is a second grader at Emma Miller.

“Her experience has been wonderful, happy, energetic, she loves to go to school,” Cooper said. “She actually gets upset if she has to miss school for an appointment and always makes me reschedule appointments to not-school hours.”

Of the staff members, Cooper added, “They go above and beyond for the students to make sure that they have the best education and making it fun and enjoyable.”

Tierney speaks proudly about the longevity of the staff members.

She has been there for five years. All but one teacher has been there longer, and that one is a special-education teacher Tierney added four years ago.

At the end of this year, one teacher is leaving. Tierney, who now teaches English language arts in the fifth and sixth grades, will teach a combined-grade classroom full time next year and be principal part time. The school’s special-education teacher will step into co-teach to help fill gaps. Both of those steps are being taken to keep the budget unchanged.

“I think the word I’m using with our staff is reinventing ourselves,” Tierney said, adding that she expects a major budget tightening in fiscal year 2025 when American Rescue Plan Act funds dry up. “We’re a small school. We have a small population, but the school is so precious and so important to this community that we need to keep it going as long as we can.”

She said in her time at the school, no student has left because of the challenges of being in a combined classroom.

The motto at the school is “Be Kind, Be Awesome,” Tierney reminded the fifth and sixth graders as they discussed what they like about the school.

Some students said they like that the school is small.

Audrina Anello, 10, a fifth grader from Adams, said she likes the fact that teachers are respectful, and a classmate, Morgan Legrand, 11, from Adams, said, “I like that there’s no bullying.”

Michael Bolling, 10, a fifth grader from Savoy, said, “The kids are super nice.”

Joey Nocher, 11, a fifth grader from Adams, said the combined-grade classroom is a plus.

“I like that you have good influences in the sixth grade when you’re in fifth grade,” she said. “So you can be kind of like them when you go into sixth grade, and you can be kind of like them when you teach the fifth graders.”