30 Mar 2 grades, 1 classroom (IL)

March 30, 2011

By: Tara Malone
Source: Chicago Tribune

Across the Chicago area, students from different grades increasingly mingle as they learn to spell, write and study history. While they do not share a grade, they share a teacher, a classroom and even a lunch table in a tradition that’s as old as the one-room schoolhouse: blending students from multiple grades into a single classroom.

Although multiage learning has long been a hallmark of Montessori education, today it’s finances, not academics, driving the renewed interest in many districts.

As schools grapple with another year of state payment delays and property tax shortfalls, of layoffs and budget cuts, more educators are realizing they can save the cost of a teacher’s salary every time they put extra students from two grades into one class together rather than keeping them separated, with two different teachers.

"People are revisiting it because it’s a viable option and, historically, it’s always worked," said Jim Grant, an educational consultant and author who has written on the subject. But "it’s done out of financial necessity."

Officials in southwest suburban Plainfield School District 202 don’t mince words when asked why they added 10 multigrade classes for the first time last fall: they hoped to save as much as $1.3 million.

"This is based on numbers," district spokesman Tom Hernandez said.

Elgin-based School District U-46 added about 20 combination classes across the district, bringing the total to 177 this year. Officials there estimate they saved about $1.2 million based on an average teacher’s salary of $63,205.

In the south suburbs, Evergreen Park School District 124 officials plan to keep for another year two multigrade classrooms created last fall in a cost-cutting move at Northwest School. They were the district’s first such classes and were &qu ot;a tough sell," Superintendent Diane Cody said.

Chicago Public Schools does not track how many multigrade classes exist across more than 650 schools. But district spokeswoman Monique Bond said the education team plans to study just how pervasive such class combinations are.

Experts say the local trend mirrors an increase seen in classrooms across the country, though no official accounting exists.

In some districts, the increase is still driven by beliefs more than budgets.

Oak Park’s Whittier Elementary School first created multigrade classes — six rooms of kindergarten and first-grade combinations — 16 years ago. Today, two-thirds of the school’s mainstream classes draw students from multiple grades.

"Multiage is a bit less of a competitive environment," Principal Carol Young said. "We’re looking at students as individuals, not in lockstep fashion."

Schaumburg School District 54 began the school year with 128 classrooms with combined grades last fall, the highest number recorded in a decade. Families even can apply to send their kids to Lincoln Prairie School in Hoffman Estates, which is entirely multiage.

To be clear, Principal Amanda Stochl said students get assigned to grades and take state standardized tests by grade. But second-graders who are not tested, for instance, still practice persuasive writing skills that their third-grade classmates must demonstrate on the exams.

"We work hard to expose students in two years to what will be on the test even though it may not be something they are tested on that year," Stochl said.

& #x0D;
Elgin school officials tried to pinpoint the academic impact of combined classrooms.

They measured how students scored in the fall and spring on the Measure of Academic Progress exam. The analysis found children fared about the same regardless of their class assignment. Third-graders in a traditional third-grade class improved 11.1 points in math, for instance, while third-graders in a second-third grade class gained 11.3 points and kids in a third-fourth grade class showed a 10.3-point gain, according to district records.

"I can honestly stand up there and say ‘your children will be fine. Your children will function and learn,’" said Deborah Devine, an instructional coach who works with multigrade teachers.

Still, the grade couplings can be a difficult sell with parents. Families with younger children often worry they’ll be overwhelmed, and the parents of older kids fret their kids might not be challenged.

A surge of parent complaints sidelined plans for multigrade classes in Springfield Public Schools this fall. At Pleasant Hill Elementary School, for instance, parents voiced enough concerns that district officials hired two new teachers to keep single-grade classes intact.

Simply defining a multigrade class often is the first hurdle to winning parent support.

In the truest sense, students spend two years with the same teacher who loops with them through both grades. Teachers stagger lessons required for both grades during those two years.

But districts driven by financial and enrollment concerns rarely can guarantee such long-term consistency. Instead, they use other carrots to spark family interest.

&#x 0A;In Will County, Plainfield officials won parent support by giving them the final say on whether their child would participate. Most districts invite comments, but do not give families a choice.

Teachers recommended students who work well independently, a key skill in a multigrade classroom. Principals sent letters to alert parents their child was considered and to invite them to sit down over breakfast. They recruited several seasoned teachers to lead the classes.

The ultimate boon, though, was a smaller class than is traditional. Although most fourth- and fifth-graders are in classes of 27 to 32 students, district officials said, the combined class at Charles Reed Elementary School in Plainfield has 22 children.

Teacher Angie Janetos estimates students in her class learn separately for about 90 minutes of the 6.5-hour day. They stick together for language arts, but divide for math as well as music, art and gym.

They study science and social studies by grade too. Janetos syncs the fifth-grade lesson on the Civil War with the fourth-grade study of the country’s southeast region.

On a recent Friday, fifth-grader Skylar Denoyer and fourth-grader Mandy Kaiser sat eye to eye, knee to knee, as they quizzed one another on the week’s vocabulary.

"Metallic," Mandy said, enunciating the first word she picked for Skylar to spell.

"Glorious," she said next, with a dramatic wave of her head.

The girls often partner for assignments. They make origami with colorful post-it-notes. And while they don’t hang out, they mark their friendship in other ways.

&quo t;We text," Mandy grinned.

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