Classes of future resemble schoolhouse of past Schools experiment with mixed ages

October 03, 1993|By Mary Maushard | Mary Maushard,Staff Writer

Welcome to the one-room schoolhouse of the 21st century.

It's a conglomeration of children using different books, practicing different skills, learning at different speeds and in different ways.

The teachers -- a team instead of just one -- are more likely to be sitting in rockers than behind desks. Rarely standing at the front of the room, they move around, demonstrating capital F's at one table, evaluating student journals at another.

There are tables and chairs, but no neat rows of little desks. There are few textbooks, but lots of handouts and hands-on equipment. The slate has been replaced by a computer screen and the hickory stick by a "time-out chair."

If you call it multi-age grouping or continuous progress education, it's an innovation. If you call it a return to the one-room schoolhouse, it's common-sense education enhanced by technology.

Multi-age grouping is new this fall to Baltimore County -- and Maryland -- although it has been tried successfully in other states.

Four Baltimore County elementary schools -- Kingsville, Chadwick, Eastwood Center and Fort Garrison -- have combined groups of children -- usually 5-, 6- and 7-year-olds -- in one classroom.

Instead of being grouped by grade or age, the children are grouped by their level of development. One 5-year-old may be reading; another may not yet know the alphabet. Each has a place in the multi-age classroom, teachers say, and each can succeed without being bored or frustrated.

Multi-age grouping just "makes good sense" because no two children develop identically, said Kingsville Principal Rodney Obaker.

The idea, he said, is to fit the curriculum to the child and not the child to the curriculum.

Multi-age grouping also allows some children to have the same teacher for two or three years without having to adjust to someone new each September.

"In a program like this, our children move at their own pace," says Lois Balser, one of the creators of Chadwick's multi-age program. "Children have these spurts of learning."

Multi-age grouping also means fewer children will have to repeat grades, educators say. If youngsters don't master all of their first-grade skills, "does it pay off to repeat the whole year?" asks Ms. Balser. "My concern is the stigma behind retention. Everybody knows."

Chadwick, in the Catonsville area, has started the county's largest program, with 71 children who would normally be in kindergarten, first and second grades. They all share what used to be two classrooms with three teachers and two aides.

The teachers, Ms. Balser, Rosalie Giese and Clare Carter, spent months researching and visiting multi-age programs and continue to work at getting theirs to run well.

Ms. Balser and Ms. Giese have taught together for 19 years in classrooms that open into each other. Their space was converted into the multi-age room. Their long working relationship helped them set up the new program, which requires far more planning and organization than a traditional classroom.

Nevertheless, "the first days were overwhelming," said Mrs. Carter, who has taught prekindergarten for three years at Chadwick. She and Ms. Giese were ready to give up and return to their old classrooms during the first week of school.

"Now, I love it," Mrs. Carter said.

Kingsville, in the northern part of the county, has one "continuous progress" class of 22 students with one teacher. Its philosophy and approach are slightly different.

Pace of progress varies

"Some children just developmentally are not ready to move from a kindergarten to a first-grade classroom that's much more structured," Mr. Obaker said. Similarly, some first-graders aren't prepared for second grade. It was these students who were invited into the new program.

The group uses the standard curriculum, but in a different way. Children get the material in shorter segments, and they're more active.

"The reason we're doing this is maturity; some children just need a little more time," says the principal.

Formerly a special education center, Eastwood in Dundalk has several new programs -- one for prekindergartners through second-graders and one for troubled middle school students. The multi-age class has 32 students who would otherwise be attending nearby schools. The center has other prekindergartners, but they don't mix with the older youngsters yet.

Sandra Richter transferred from Reisterstown Elementary School to teach at Eastwood after attending a workshop with Eastwood's principal, Lois Valentine, a promoter of multi-age grouping.

Enjoyment is key

"One important thing that we've picked up on is that the children don't want to go home. They are really enjoying themselves," Mrs. Richter said in a classroom filled with new equipment and state-of-the-art teaching materials. "When they feel good about themselves, then the learning is going to come."

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