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Multi-age program touts added benefits for students

Kindergarteners, first graders and second graders in class together
By: Sena Christian, The Press Tribune
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When Maria Milanez-Miller, her husband and their daughter moved to Granite Bay from Rochester, N.Y., they immediately enrolled their child in the multi-age program at Greenhills Elementary School. They’ve been pleased with this decision. “I love the fact that our daughter is an only child and she benefits from having olders and youngers,” Milanez-Miller says. “We just moved here and it’s been a great transition for her.” The terms “youngers” and “olders” describe age groups of students in her daughter’s multi-age program, in which kindergarteners, first graders and second graders attend class together. The youngers are the kindergarteners, middlers are first graders and olders are second graders. As the only one of its kind in Roseville and Granite Bay — and possibly Placer County — the three-grade multi-age program provides added social and academic benefits for students, says Greenhills Principal Peter Towne. The school, in the Eureka Union School District, has offered the program for about the past 15 years. Greenhills currently has two of these classes with 88 students out of a total population of 475 students. Parents can choose to enroll their child in the traditional class or multi-age program. “It serves a need in our community,” Towne says. “It gives parents a choice, which is key.” The multi-age class has the same class size ratio as a traditional class, of 21.5 students to one teacher, which means two teachers work in each class. On a recent morning, the 44 kids in one class assemble together, sitting cross-legged on the ground as teacher Kim Gerould describes that day’s math assignment. A small microphone is attached to her shirt — studies show that when students can’t hear their teacher they may misbehave, Towne says. The multi-age program has the same curriculum standards as traditional classes, but Greenhills educators tweaked the lesson plans to suit the different age groups. For instance, for an assignment, a kindergartner may write a short sentence, while the second grader writes an essay — both children learn conceptually about grammar and composition. Typically, the teacher will present a lesson to the whole class and then break students into small groups for an assignment. Sometimes, the students will join peers of the same age group and sometimes they’ll mix with younger or older kids. This provides a social benefit, Towne says, because youngers benefit from modeling older students, while middlers and olders learn responsibility and leadership. For that day’s math assignment, the kids must count their number of eyes, group members, shoes, legs on their pets, total ages, toes and write out an equation. Garrett Jones, 6, cheers when his group is almost done with the assignment. “Teamwork always gets us through!” says Tia Johnson, 7, throwing her arms into the air. Gerould laughs at the kids. This is her eighth year teaching the multi-age class. “I love it,” she says. “I love working with the students for three years and having the opportunity to know them in depth. You see them grow as learners.” She says this relationship also helps students. When they start a new school year, they return to the same classroom and already know their teacher’s expectations. Students experience more continuity and less anxiety, Gerould says. Plus, instead of spending six weeks becoming familiar with students, teachers already know their strengths and weaknesses, and they pick up where they left off and get right down to business. The parents, meanwhile, forge a close relationship with educators and one another. Jody Mahoney has a 5-year-old in the program and next year, her 4-year-old will join. “It’s amazing,” Mahoney says. “It’s a great opportunity for them to experience.” Teachers, such as Annette Rowsey, enjoy the program, too. “It’s great for kids because you have them for three years, so you get to know them inside and outside,” Rowsey says. “We have time to invest in them because we know we’re going to have them for three years.” For Rowsey, a veteran teacher and self-described creative mind, the program allows her to devise lesson plans that challenge older kids but younger kids will also understand. She doesn’t see any drawbacks to the program, she says. “This has just been the best thing I’ve ever done,” Rowsey says. “I’m allowed to create and remake the curriculum to do what’s right for our kids.” Sena Christian can be reached at senac@goldcountrymedia.com.