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Publication Date: Friday, June 07, 2002

Combination classes: cutting-edge teaching tool or anathema to proper learning? Combination classes: cutting-edge teaching tool or anathema to proper learning? (June 07, 2002)

By Candice Shih

The words "combination class" usually incite widespread shuddering in elementary school parents. The mere idea of having first and second-graders being taught together or fifth and sixth-graders in the same classroom has sent parents to the phones, asking others to donate money for more teachers.

"My daughter probably wouldn't get the entire curriculum," said Anne Westbrook, a Loyola School parent whose concern is common among parents in Mountain View and Los Altos.

But with one group of parents fighting combination classes, there is another group that actually want to put their kids in a mixed-age classroom.
A necessary evil?

When school districts start to lose enrollment and money, combination classes are among the first solutions to pop up on the radar screen.

Children don't come into the district in neat, age-specific packages of 25, and it's expensive to hire two full-time teachers to teach one class of 13 fourth graders and one class of 12 fifth graders.

Rather than move students from school to school to fill up a class, a combination class at one site is devised so that student-to-teacher ratios stay high and costs stay down.

The Los Altos School District, with a $4.5 million shortfall, recently decided to save money by creating several third-fourth, fourth-fifth, and fifth-sixth grade combination classes. Parents and teachers responded in protest.

Save Our Staff, a collection of LASD parents, formed with the sole intention of raising money to retain more teachers, which would lower class size and eliminate combination classes.

Los Altos teaching staff identified restoring teachers to eliminate upper-grade combination classes as a high priority, second only to restoring electives at the junior high schools, said Amanda Terry, president-elect of the Los Altos teachers union.

Although the Mountain View-Whisman School District faces smaller budget cuts, it recently decided not to fill six teacher vacancies.

Thus, in challenging economic times, with 80 percent of MVWSD's budget and 90 percent of LASD's budget going to salaries and related benefits, combination classes become necessary.
Not so evil after all?

But, while some school communities are fighting with all their might to prevent combination classes, it's business as usual in Bonnie Laster's kindergarten through second grade class.

This is the Slater School teacher's fourth year voluntarily teaching what the school calls a "multi-age" class. She has 4 second-graders, 8 first-graders, 5 kindergartners, and 2 students she calls K-1.

But there are no age lines here.

"It's a myth that everybody who's 7 is the same because they're not," said Slater Principal Nicki Smith.

Laster said that a kindergarten class alone exhibits a broad range in learning ability, and that this range isn't any wider in a kindergarten through second grade class. She finds teaching this kind of class "more natural" and reminiscent of one-room schoolhouses.

Both younger and older children benefit from this arrangement, said Sue Lampkin, who teaches a kindergarten and first-grade multi-age class at Slater. The younger children have direct role models and the older children learn responsibility, she said.

The students in Laster's and Lampkin's classes function as peer tutors, too. As Laster said, "all children are good in certain areas."

Thus, each child is given the opportunity to gain independence and self-worth by teaching others. In addition, it's widely agreed upon by educators that students who teach a subject learn it better themselves.

Laster said another advantage of multi-age teaching is being able to teach the same students two years in a row.

"There's no wasted time for the student and teacher to get to know each other," said Susan Shannon, whose son Caleb is in Laster's class for the second year. " and he had no anxiety about coming back to school."

Furthermore, Smith said she has seen less competition among students in multi-age classes.

Academic research on multi-age education has also been mostly positive. Several studies extol the improvements in students' social skills and the zero or positive change in student achievement.
A complicated set of issues

It's harder, however, to get educators and parents to agree on the benefits of multi-age classrooms for older students.

This is most likely because curriculum, rather than basic development, drives the education of students who are in the fourth grade or higher.

"Teachers are responsible for two sets of curricula," said Craig Goldman, the Huff School principal and a former combination class teacher. "There's less flexibility in how you teach."

Lenore Graves teaches a fourth and fifth-grade combination class at Oak School in Los Altos. She admitted that the challenges of making the schedule work are "quite daunting" and that it can take months for everyone to get on board.

Graves' students are chosen for her combination class because they are independent learners with average to above average abilities. This process of selection disturbs Loyola parent Westbrook because she thinks it creates unbalanced classes.

But, with the help of extra bodies, Graves asserts that her combination class works.

For example, in certain subjects the students will join others in their grade. Graves will teach writing while other teachers will teach her students social studies and science at their appropriate grade levels.

She also has an aide who helps her teach language arts. Graves said that even if they are both running two different spelling tests in the same room, the students don't get them mixed up.

Kathleen Bransfield, a fourth and fifth-grade teacher at Slater, agreed that the logistics are more complicated but that fellow teachers help her out.

Open-ended projects make it possible for her to teach two curricula. For example, she assigned a research project which required 4th-graders to report on California missions and 5th-graders on American colonies.

In addition, Bransfield has observed that her students' abilities don't necessarily conform to their grade level and, with a combination class, she can provide a wider set of instruction to accommodate everyone.

As a result of more experience with combination classes, parents are starting to turn around, said Graves.

"To make it work, you need people who believe in it," said Mountain View-Whisman interim superintendent Eleanor Yick.


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