Classroom cooperation

Mulit-age program thrives at Granite Bay elementary school
By: Eileen Wilson Special to the Press-Tribune
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Spring heralds many new beginnings, and 4- and 5-year-olds everywhere are excited (and apprehensive) about the new chapter in their lives that will result from enrolling in school. Kindergarten registration is under way at Greenhills Elementary School in Granite Bay, and Peter Towne, school principal, said he is pleased to offer incoming kindergartners a choice between traditional and multi-grade classes. At Greenhills, multi-age classrooms are comprised of kindergartners, first-graders and second-graders “ up to 14 students from each grade level. The program, which arrived on the scene with one class and two teachers seven years ago, was an instant hit, and has since expanded to three classes and six teachers, for a total of 120 students enrolled. The idea behind the multi-age class is that children in the program are essentially looped with the same students, teachers and classrooms for three years. Some say this type of environment provides continuity and stability for kids. Long gone are the agonizing weeks of wondering who is my teacher this year? and will I have any friends in the class? The classroom theme changes each year, but where a child stores his/her backpack and lunch pail doesn't. According to Kim Gerould, one of Greenhills' multi-age class teachers, it usually takes four to six weeks to get to know a child. In a multi-age setting, students are able to get to the business of learning on the first day of school, as only a handful of kids are new to a class each year. While students are separated into same-grade groups for core subjects like reading, writing and math, other elements of the curriculum are taught to all grades together. Topics like science and social studies are presented to everyone, with the older kids working on more rigorous material than younger students. There's a common misconception that older kids in a classroom “ in this case they're called olders “ might pick on less-mature kindergartners (youngers) and first-graders (middlers), Gerould said. It's absolutely opposite of that, she said. There's an immediate family atmosphere. The idea of bullying or picking on kids doesn't even enter their minds. They remember what it's like to be the youngest. Gerould said the kids take on responsibilities within the class setting they might not have in a traditional class. Kids can't wait to be in first or second grade to be able to take on a little buddy, or second-grade leadership, said Annette Rowsy, a multi-age teacher. Olders and middlers help their young peers in several ways, from showing them where to put their things, to how to get through the hot lunch line. And kids aren't the only ones taking on more responsibility. In three years you really know the kids inside and out, Gerould said. Teachers have a larger investment in their kids' education, and really have a chance to weave concepts into the curriculum and make sure subject matter is covered in depth over the course of three years. We make sure there are no holes in the curriculum, Rowsy emphasized. Three-year cycles keep the curriculum fresh. Constantly challenging yourself “ that's what keeps you young and alive. Parents become invested in the multi-age classes as well. Moms and dads of older students work hard to make sure new students and parents feel welcome. They volunteer in the classroom, and even organize get-togethers with new students' families to make sure everyone feels comfortable. Parents really embody the family spirit of the class, Rowsy said. Though most students will thrive in a multi-age classroom environment, students are placed in the class by parent request. Principal Towne encourages parents of incoming kindergartners to tour both multi-age and traditional classrooms to learn more. Parents need to understand it's a three-year commitment to get the full three-year curriculum, he said. Asking olders and middlers to help the little ones out may seem like a great way to teach responsibility, but that's not how students see it. I get to watch them and play with them, said Nathan Lee, a second-grader, responding to what he thought of the youngest kids in his class. Katie Hunter, a fellow second-grader likes the little ones because you can help the younger kids, and if you're younger, someone can help you. How do Greenhills teachers feel about their multi-age classes? It has been, in my 30 years as a teacher, the best run of my life, Rowsy said.