'Olders' helping 'youngers': Multi-age classrooms said to build social skillsEducational movements wax and wane, but the multiage instructional program at Mitchell’s L.B. Williams Elementary School has endured 14 years in Mitchell.
By: Ross Dolan, The Daily Republic
Educational movements wax and wane, but the multiage instructional program at Mitchell’s L.B. Williams Elementary School has endured 14 years in Mitchell.
Despite its status as a mainstay at LBW, neither of the city’s other two public elementary schools have instituted multi-age classrooms, and state officials say the multi-age concept is not widely used across South Dakota.
The multi-age classrooms at LBW consist of four classes of about 20 to 25 students each: two with first- and second-graders, and two with third- and fourth-graders.
Some say multi-age classrooms produce better students, but test results don’t seem to prove or disprove the claim. Students in third and fourth grades at LBW, for example, typically perform better on standardized tests than their counterparts at Longfellow Elementary, but not as well as students at Gertie Belle Rogers Elementary. All three schools routinely beat statewide average scores.
Test scores aside, some parents with children in the multi-age program say it advances their children’s social and scholastic development, and perhaps most important, their children like it.
About 100 of L.B. Williams’ 450 students are in multi-age classes, said Principal Becky Roth. The program shouldn’t be confused with a “combination classroom,” said multi-age lead teacher Cheryle Aslesen, in which a teacher instructs one grade level while another grade level works separately. The combination classroom was the method employed in one-room schoolhouses.
In true multi-age classrooms, all the children work together on the same lesson, regardless of their grade level. Each student addresses the skill being taught at his or her own level of development.
Aslesen teaches grades one and two multi-age classes with fellow teacher Barb Bauder. Stacy Morgan and Hallie Tate teach a multi-age class in grades three and four.
“It’s a great program,” Mitchell Superintendent of Schools Joe Graves said. “You must individualize instruction and take kids where they’re at. Teachers in the program must become adept at individualizing instruction.”
Citing an example, Aleslen explained that students dealing with a math story problem may be divided into various groups, but all may use different numbers within the same story problem. A basic group may deal with learning facts up to the number 10, another to 24, and still others may employ subtraction using double digits or even multiplication within the same story problem.
“The numbers are just changed to meet the individual differences,” she said.
Teachers are constantly assessing students to determine needs.
“We want to be held accountable and we want to be sure children are learning where they need to be learning, so it’s a lot of teach-type assessments. It could be paper and pencil assessments, project-based assessments and teacher observation,” she said. Students are also being prepared for the first Dakota STEP tests they will take in the third grade.
“We’re constantly assessing so we can move kids at their own pace,” said Barb Bauder.
Aslesen said “every teacher wants her children to accelerate and move forward, but some students may not be ready for the work. This program gives them some time to be ready for it.”
‘Youngers’ and ‘olders’
Aslesen —“Mrs. A” to her students and a 30-year teaching veteran — said she saw the program at work in Minneapolis schools about 18 years ago and knew it was how she wanted to teach. “I believed in it,” she said.
Kids in the program aren’t considered first-, second-, third- or fourthgraders, but “youngers” and “olders.”
Olders learn leadership roles by taking responsibility for the youngers. They often help youngers struggling with material, said Stacy Morgan, but the roles occasionally are reversed.
A teacher for 20 years, nine of those in the multi-age classroom, Morgan said she’s glad she got some traditional teaching experience under her belt before tackling the multi-age discipline.
“It takes time and confidence,” she said. “I build a really strong bond with my kids because I have my kids two years.”
Students like the program because they know it and understand its expectations, teachers said, and teachers enjoy it because they get to keep half their students longer. The half that remains each year provides continuity that smoothes the transition into a new school year.
The program pre-dates LBW Principal Becky Roth’s time with the district, and she said it’s popular with parents.
“What we want people to know is that that there’s nothing special or elitist about the multi-age classes. The classes have the same mix of students — including special needs students — we have in our traditional classes.”
Interim South Dakota Secretary of Education Melody Schopp said multi-age classrooms are typical of the programs that can evolve under local control. The state’s focus is not on individual curriculum development.
“If local school districts decide to be innovative, that’s fine,” Schopp said. “We don’t micromanage.”
Whatever curriculum is approved, the students using that program must meet state learning standards.
Schopp said some schools are combining classes in a similar manner to Mitchell as a way of dealing with possible budget crunches.
But that’s not the best time, or reason, to start a multi-age class, Aslesen said, because multi-age classrooms don’t require any less time and teaching talent than regular classes, and true multi-age classes require experienced teachers to be effective.
Aslesen suspects many of the multi-age classes noted by Secretary Schopp are “combination classrooms” rather than true multi-age classrooms.
Superintendent Graves said the multi-age program is “cost neutral,” which means it costs no more — or less — to run than traditional classes.
Gertie Belle Rogers does not use the multi-age program, but it uses a “looping” program for some classes that allows teachers to remain with their class for a two-year period and then “loop,” or return, for a new, lower-grade class assignment.
Parents are ‘big fans’
Mitchell parent Jared DeBoer said he and his wife, Mandy, “really like” the multi-age program. “We’re big fans.” Their two children, Tessa, a third-grader, and Tate, a first-grader, are both in the program.
The DeBoers live in an area served by Gertie Belle Rogers but used the district’s open enrollment policy to move their children to LBW. Friends gave the program high grades. They met with a few multiage classroom teachers at LBW during a Back to School night and were sold.
District policy allows students to attend the school of their choice — as long as there’s sufficient room.
The DeBoers heard about the multi-age class from friends who had children in the program, and they’ve never regretted enrolling their children.
DeBoer said he and his wife like the social interaction of the mixed grade levels and the fact that youngers are often spurred to higher academic achievement through their association with more advanced olders. Both of their children have performed well on the state standardized tests, they said.
“My daughter’s reading has progressed really fast,” Jared DeBoer said. The fourth-graders do more advanced work, “and it pushes her to do more. Next year, she’ll be that much further ahead.”
“And the olders can teach the youngers the ropes,” he said, “so the program develops character and leadership skills.”
Steve and Sonya Clark are also sold on the program and believe it challenges son Kade, 9, to do better.
Kade is a younger (third-grader) in Hallie Tate’s multi-age class. Kade has already passed through Mrs. Aslesen’s first- and second-grade multi-age class.
The Clarks believe having older kids in the same class has created positive models for their son.
“Kids see what older kids are doing and they want to do that, too,” Steve Clark said. “It has been an excellent experience.”
His son is challenged by the multiage work, he said, and that keeps him out of trouble.
“We’ve watched him develop faster because of this program, and his English and math skills seem to be ahead of other kids his age,” he said.
‘Community of learners’
The multi-age concept has also been a mainstay in one Rapid City school.
Teachers are enthusiastic about the community-building that takes place under the multi-age system, said Cher Daniel, principal of the 540-student Rapid Valley Elementary School, which has had multi-age classes for 16 years. The school has a class of second- and third-graders, and a class of thirdand fourth-graders.
“Our philosophy for the program is to build a community of learners,” she said.
Her school doesn’t track whether students in the program perform better than students in traditional classes, Daniel said, but they’re believed to do no worse. It’s her belief that the program helps student achievement and increases parent-teacher rapport. Parents and teachers get to know each other better over a two-year period.
If demand is any indicator of success, then Rapid Valley’s program is successful. “From first grade on, there’s always a waiting list,” Daniel said.
Mitchell teacher Stacy Morgan said the program has traditionally created a strong bond between teachers and students, and the connection with her students is especially close.
Diagnosed with breast cancer in 2008, Morgan taught her way through 16 chemotherapy treatments. Throughout, kids rallied about her and created a countdown chain of paper links. After each chemo treatment, a paper link was broken and the class had a party. Students also wore T-shirts with the slogan “Fight like a Girl.” The gauntlet of treatments provided numerous teachable moments, Morgan said.
“When I lost my hair, they all had a ‘Hat Day,’” she said.
Well-meaning friends asked Morgan how, as ill as she was, she managed to go to work every day.
“I told them I couldn’t imagine not going to work,” she said.
Each year at LBW, the grades one and two multi-age class sponsors a “Restaurant Night.” This year’s event will be held on three nights: Feb. 28, March 1 and March 3. The pint-sized entrepreneurs name the restaurant — this year, it’s Pirate Patchy’s Paradise — create menus, hire a caterer and also, with the aid of parents, help to prepare and serve the meals. Every aspect of the project offers learning opportunities, Aslesen explained.
“Last year, we served an average of 150 people a night over three nights.” At $6.50 a plate, it’s also a bargain.
Anyone is welcome to attend. Just call 995-3090 during school hours to make a reservation.
Considering all the positives that parents and educators like about multi-age classrooms, it begs a question: Why hasn’t the multi-age program expanded?
There have been no requests to extend the program to other district schools, Superintendent Graves said. He said the mix of classes works well at LBW.
Roth confirmed that appraisal.
“It seems to fit well with the grade levels and teachers we have right now, and I don’t see us expanding it right now.”
Both Roth and her multi-age teaching staff vigorously sing the benefits of their program, but they also reject any attempt to portray it as better. They are satisfied that the multi-age program offers parents another option.
And maybe choice availability is enough for most parents. Graves thinks so.
“Part of the reason the program works so well is that it is another option that you can pick as a parent,” he said.