FAILING GRADE

SOME PARENTS GIVE LOW MARKS TO JEFFCO'S "MULTI-AGE" CLASSROOMS.

In Jefferson County School District, where outcome-based education has been denounced as too radical, you'd expect administrators to be patted on the back for reviving elements of the fondly remembered one-room schoolhouse. But the move to "multi-age" classes has some parents in the state's largest district angry.

Because multi-aging combines two or more grades in one classroom, some parents at Lukas Elementary in Westminster fear that it will lead to bullying of younger kids and that older children will be slowed academically by less proficient youngsters. Others are put off by aspects they believe are rooted in outcome-based education. A "coming reform" nationally, according to district spokeswoman Marilyn Saltzman, multi-aging is used in about half of Jeffco's 83 elementary schools. Introduced in Denver Public Schools about five years ago, multi-aging has spread to about 20 percent of that district's elementaries, says DPS administrator Leroy Lopez.

The concept came to Lukas Elementary in 1991, when some parents agreed to let their first- and second-graders be taught in the same classroom. Parents and teachers came to see the advantages of older and younger children learning together, says principal Gretchen Vasquez. Responding to increased demand, Vasquez added more multi-age classes each year for grades one and two. The sticking point for some parents hit when Vasquez announced that come August, no conventional version of first or second grade would be offered. That prompted the protesters to mount a petition drive demanding the option of single-age grades.

"I don't think it's right for every child," one mother says of multi-aging. Ellen, who prefers her last name not be used, wants her first-grader in a single-age class, where she believes he'll be held to firmer academic standards. Multi-aging suffers from the same weaknesses as outcome-based programs, she believes. "It's `let the children decide what they want to learn,'" she adds. "Kids that age need more direction. I used to think I was so liberal in college, but now that I have my own kids I don't want this touchy-feely stuff."

Cindy Boyce, a district administrative assistant who's helped start Jeffco's multi-age programs during the past seven years, uses jargon like "cooperative grouping" in discussing multi-aging. She acknowledges that some parents link such phrases to outcome-based education. But she denies that multi-aging is either touchy-feely or outcome-based.

"The benefit that I've experienced myself as a teacher and the one I hear most frequently from parents and kids is that they have the same teacher for two or more years," Boyce says. She argues that familiarity between teacher and student allows both to get off to a quicker start in the fall term. Pupils also are more comfortable and better able to talk with a teacher they already know who, in turn, is more knowledgeable about the children, Boyce explains. She concedes that some conventional grade schools also use the practice of keeping a teacher with the same class through successive years.

Older kids in a multi-age setting don't find themselves slowed down, asserts Boyce, provided the teachers are on top of the situation. For instance, she explains, a grammar lesson in the use of quotation marks could be taught to kids of varying levels by breaking the class into groups. While one group picks quotation marks out of the text of a storybook, another could work on a written assignment page, while a third might proofread a creative writing assignment for proper usage.

As for bullying, Lukas principal Vasquez insists, "We've found just the opposite." Older students become role models for younger ones and take responsibly to that job, she says. "Teachers here have found that children coming out of multi-age classrooms are more compassionate, more tolerant of differences, more willing to help each other," Vasquez says.

Barb Rodriguez, a teacher who began a multi-age program at Martensen Elementary in Wheat Ridge three years ago, agrees: "Our discipline problems decreased. The older kids became more nurturing. The classrooms got to be more like a family setting rather than competitive settings."

That hasn't been the experience of Kay, another Lukas parent who prefers not to be fully identified. A volunteer teaching assistant with two primary grades, Kay says she regularly observes older kids picking on and teasing younger ones. In fact, her nephew, a Lukas second-grader, one day refused to go to his multi-age class because of persistent bullying by another boy. Like Ellen, Kay wants the option of having her kindergartener attend a conventional first grade next term. "I'm not comfortable with [multi-aging] at all," she states, worrying her son would be subject to intimidation by second-graders. "The teachers are saying it doesn't happen, but I'm at the school three days a week and I watch it happen all day every day."

But Vasquez maintains that all of the school's first- and second-grade teachers want multi-aging, and that most parents of children who'll be in grades one and two next August agree. "It's not something we're trying to ram down people's throats," she says.

Parent Debbie Atkinson disagrees. At a recent meeting of parents and teachers to explain multi-aging, the principal squelched discussion of the downside of the concept, says Atkinson, and told critical parents to "find another school."

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