Breaking the age barrier in K12 schools
In August, Woodbrook Elementary School in Albemarle County Public Schools in Virginia completed a renovation and expansion that features much larger classrooms to facilitate multiage learning.
Each family at Woodbrook can choose whether to place their child in a traditional, single-grade classroom or in a multiage classroom with two grade levels combined.
With the new, larger learning spaces and teachers dedicated to multiage instruction, the entire school is gradually combining age levels, with two grades together currently and eventually, up to three.
“All children don’t develop at the same rate, so giving them more time together with the same teachers allows them all more time to master skills and to move seamlessly from being mentored to mentoring others,” says Lisa Molinaro, principal at Woodbrook Elementary.
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While the focus on grade-level standardized tests keeps many schools bound to traditional grade-level classrooms organized by birthdates, schools like Woodbrook are finding ways to make multiage classes work, even in a standards-based education system.
And they say their students are thriving.
Sense of belonging
Students who grasp new concepts slowly in a traditional first-grade classroom quickly realize they are behind their peers, and will likely continue to feel behind every year.
In a multiage classroom, there are a variety of ages at different stages of development. Those who progress slowly don’t feel like they are lagging behind, and those who catch on quickly can cement and reinforce their knowledge by helping their peers, Molinaro says.
“Every child almost always has a place to feel like they belong,” she says. “The atmosphere authentically builds character and leadership.”
At Mālama Honua Public Charter School in Hawaii, leadership development is a natural result of combined classrooms for first and second grades, third and fourth grades, and fifth and sixth grades.
“Because we have two grades per classroom, once students have the first year done, they become the older students and step up and become role models for the younger students in the next year,” says Denise Espania, school director.
Spending two or more years in the same classroom also helps build stronger relationships among teachers, students and families.
“Students aren’t starting over all the time,” Molinaro says. “When a new school year begins, they already have relationships with teachers, and teachers have relationships with the families.”
A multiage model also allows teachers to easily differentiate instruction. They can work with struggling students “without it being seen as a stigma,” Espania says.
For instance, Mālama Honua’s multiage classrooms are structured with centers that allow for small-group sessions and one-on-one pullouts every day, so students never feel singled out.
Campfire spaces and cave spaces
Classrooms with varying grade levels can work in a number of different ways. At Woodbrook, for instance, families who opt for multiage classrooms can choose between a combined room with two teachers and about 50 students, or a larger room with up to six teachers and 140 students.
In these larger rooms, each student is assigned to a “pod” led by two teachers. They spend much of the day on group projects, working with classmates of different ages.
Woodbrook’s multiage classrooms feature “campfire” spaces for large meetings; “watering holes” for small-group instruction; and “cave spaces,” where children can work by themselves.
Mālama Honua combines first and second grades, third and fourth grades, and fifth and sixth grades. The school’s two combined third- and fourth-grade classes, for example, have 20 students each. An assistant teacher supports the teachers in both classrooms.
During the literacy block, students rotate through independent reading groups, writing workshops and other activities. Each teacher either monitors a larger independent practice or pulls students into small groups.
For math, the teachers separate students into grade levels. In the explorations block, the mixed-grade classes gather for co-taught lessons that are both project-based and place-based (focused on local geography, culture, history and economy).
More time to grasp concepts
At Francis W. Parker Charter Essential School, a grade 7 through 12 public charter school in Devens, Massachusetts, the whole school is “heterogeneously grouped,” says Academic Dean Deb Merriam.
“All classes are multiage, mixed readiness, nontracked, and include a wide spectrum of kids in every classroom.”
The school is organized into three divisions of study: Division 1 loosely matches seventh and eighth grade, Division 2 resembles ninth and 10th, and Division 3 is similar to 11th and 12th.
“As you move through divisions, you’re doing harder work faster, with increased pace, flexibility and autonomy as you move forward,” Merriam says.
Multiage classrooms still adhere to standards, but those standards may just have longer lead times.
“It’s more like, here’s what we want students to be able to do two years from now,” says Molinaro, of Woodbrook Elementary. “So if they don’t get it all in the first year, they have time.”
Assessments in multiage rooms also vary. At Parker, for instance, students take the standardized tests required by the state (and 100 percent pass the state graduation exam), but regular student assessments are in narrative form, Merriam says.
Teachers evaluate student progress through portfolios, using schoolwide standards and rubrics. Educators describe student progress in words, rather than number grades.
Teaching children of multiple ages in the same classroom is, for most schools, just one component of a wider strategy toward progressive pedagogy that requires new ways of thinking about choice, personalization and accountability.
“Multiage isn’t the only box you can check; we do a lot of things nontraditionally,” Merriam says. For instance, Parker uses an interdisciplinary curriculum, teaching teams, combined student and teacher governance, and service learning requirements.
If a forward-thinking culture is important for making multiage classrooms successful, communication and training are vital elements of establishing that culture.
At Parker, leaders place strong emphasis on helping parents understand the reasons for and benefits of multiage learning. “Kids will figure it out, but as with most things in school reform, it’s usually the adults who need the most help,” Merriam says.
Even more important for successful multiage classrooms is effective, ongoing professional development for teachers. Mālama Honua partners with outside organizations to provide training, and provides ongoing coaching and time for teachers to collaborate and plan.
For instance, Espania recommends using mini-lessons and observations to give teachers opportunities to get feedback and support. In addition, she works to create an environment in which teachers can collaborate in pairs or groups of three.
“For our teachers, having a co-teacher working alongside them is very important, and we’ve found that the benefits far outweigh the expense,” Espania says. “They are able to bounce ideas off each other and develop lesson plans together. When teachers have a partner to collaborate with, it increases their confidence and better serves the students.”
The necessity of ongoing teacher training is actually one of the benefits of multiage classrooms, Merriam says. Though seventh-graders have a wide range of learning needs, it may be easy to assume they can be taught the same way.
“But when you have seventh-, eighth- and ninth-graders all together, everybody knows there will be a wide range of learning needs; it’s obvious,” she says.
“Therefore, we have to do the hard work of varying our instruction and practice, and continually getting better in order to meet those needs.”
Nancy Mann Jackson is an Alabama-based writer.