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School focuses on ability over age

Teachers say the 'multi age classroom brings attention to the individual

Christine Metz

— In Erica Gallagher’s youngest science class at Lowell Whiteman Primary School, her students know all about the new millipede introduced Thursday, the pet snake over in the corner of the room and the pumpkin seeds they have just planted in small plastic cups.

But some of them might not know which grade they are in. That is because at Lowell Whiteman, specific grade levels are not that important.

Lowell Whiteman is just one of a handful of schools in the area that has established a multi-age classroom system that classifies students more on ability than age.

“The kids forget what grade they’re in. They keep forgetting the outside world is measured that way,” said the school’s headmaster, Nancy Spleen. “But we take each child every year, see where they’re at and move them forward when they are ready.”

Although the 5- to 7-year-olds that scrambled about Gallagher’s room Thursday would be categorized as kindergarten or first-graders in a traditional school system, to Lowell Whiteman, they are the Jesters. Instead of dividing students by grades, the school groups students together by ability and names each group after the area of study the school focuses on that year.

In the past, groups have been named after mountain ranges, American painters and rivers, and this year the names come from their Middle Ages curriculum.

By combining grades, Lowell Whiteman believes students have more flexibility to progress to a higher level of learning when they are ready.

Lowell Whiteman’s kindergartners to eighth-graders are not the only students in Routt County in multi-age classrooms. Perhaps the most extreme form of the system can be found in the North Routt Charter School, where Cindy Gantick teaches 15 students from 5 to 10 years old. Returning to the Moonhill Schoolhouse, the charter school is based in the principles of the multi-age classroom that has children learning from each other as well as the teacher.

Gantick, who had taught at Soda Creek Elementary School for 14 years, noticed an immediate difference in her first two months at the school.

“It’s much more natural,” she said. “You stop looking at them as what grade they are in and start to see them as individuals.”

Focusing on the individual is key to multi-age classrooms like the 7- to 9-year-olds Cindy Ruzicka teaches geography to at Lowell Whiteman. Ruzicka, who also teaches math at the school, said what she teaches to students varies depending on their strengths and weaknesses.

“Kids learn math at different paces and ways. If you try to teach math one way to one group of kids, it’s not going to work,” she said. “You see where kids are at with different topics and move along at their pace.”

Similar to the North Routt Charter School, the Christian Heritage School was also based around the multi-age system as it functioned in a schoolhouse setting. But today only its fifth- and sixth-graders are combined.

Although Christian Heritage Principal Betty Lockhart mentioned the benefits of multi-age classrooms like retaining the same teacher and students helping students learn, she also gave some drawbacks.

“In any one grade level, classrooms still have such a span of ability. But with multi-grades that span really increases,” Lockhart said.

For multi-age teachers, Lockhart said one of the biggest difficulties is introducing difficult concepts at the same time to different groups. She said a first and second multi-age classroom might see one group learning to tell time and another learning how to carry numbers in addition.

Because of those difficulties, Ruzicka said a key ingredient to a multi-age system is a small class size. Even for her classes of 10 to 12 students, she said teaching math can be trying and she relies on parent helpers to sometime review concepts with her students during class.

Although class sizes are bigger, Hayden Valley Elementary also offers multi-age classrooms to second- and third-graders. For almost 10 years, parents have had the option of sending their children to a multi-age or traditional classroom settings, Principal Mike Luppes said.

One of the biggest benefits of having a multi-age classroom, Luppes said, is having a teacher spend two years with students. That is an advantage many other area multi-age teachers believe as well.

“For the first- and second-graders, the best thing was being able to start off right where they left off. You knew their strengths and weaknesses,” Lockhart said.

Luppes also said while there is a very large academic gain the first year in the multi-age classroom, students develop into social leaders in the second year as older students learn how to help younger students. Being able to pass on knowledge to other students is one of the basic fundamentals educators hope students bring out of the multi-age setting.

“There are three or four different ways to internalize (information),” Spleen said. “Even though you sometimes learn something, if you can’t teach it in several different ways then you really don’t know it. Students are being able to teach something.”

Until recently, the Steamboat Springs School District has also had multi-age classrooms in its elementary schools. But Superintendent Cyndy Simms said as the Colorado Department of Education placed greater importance on standardized testing for public schools, it became harder to incorporate different grades into the same class as teachers centered more on preparing for the Colorado Student Assessment Program tests.

“The content standards have a real specific focus for certain students and different grades,” Simms said. “So, (multi-age classrooms) is something that has been set aside for a while. It doesn’t mean it can’t work and doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try it again.”


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