School redraws schedules to create smaller classes Lansdowne embraces staffing innovation


At midmorning in Lansdowne Elementary School, half of one third-grade class is working with half of the other. Nearby, a small group of youngsters is clustered around a table in what used to be a book closet; another dozenregrouping youngsters throughout the day. Started in Virginia 20 years ago and now creeping into other states, the innovation is designed to create small classes -- even when enrollment is up and staffing down.

It is a far cry from most elementary classes, which spend most of the day in one room with a single teacher handling all the basic subjects. But with school districts across Maryland facing financial pressures, the Lansdowne program -- the first of its kind in the Baltimore area -- appears to be a solution to ever-larger classes.

"The basic premise is that it reduces class size by 50 percent for a good part of the day," said Lansdowne Principal Anne Gold, who brought the idea to the Baltimore County school this school year.

It has resulted in more individual attention for pupils, fewer discipline problems and less wasted class time, Ms. Gold said. Teachers say the day races by, students like having more than one teacher and changing classes as "big kids" do, and parents find their youngsters more interested in school.

Such short-term gains apparently have long-term benefits. In the first three years of parallel block scheduling at Sleepy Hollow Elementary in Fairfax County, Va., standardized test scores rose from the 66th to 75th percentile in language arts and from the 76th to 87th percentile in math, said Harriet Hopkins, coordinator of elementary programs in that county.

Lansdowne, with guidance from Sleepy Hollow's faculty, modeled its system on the plan developed in the 1970s by Robert L. Canady, an associate professor of education at the University of Virginia.

Hundreds of schools across the country, including several in Frederick County, use parallel block scheduling, said Ms. Hopkins, who completed her doctoral dissertation on the subject.

The key to staffing the groups without adding teachers -- Lansdowne's staff actually was cut by 1.5 positions this year -- was putting more students into homerooms. That freed some teachers for "extension groups" -- classes providing enrichment rTC or reinforcement of lessons. Several instructional assistants also were enlisted to teach in extension groups.

Meanwhile, homeroom teachers, who traditionally instruct students in all major subjects, are responsible for fewer subjects. To accommodate all the groups, Ms. Gold juggled space, even converting some large storage rooms to small classrooms.

Parallel scheduling involves first through fifth grades, and works like this:

* The school day is divided into eight 40-minute periods, and students are in classes of regular size -- 22 to 28 pupils -- for social studies, science and specialties such as art, music and physical education.

* Students, grouped by ability, spend 80 minutes a day in language arts -- reading, writing and spelling -- and mathematics.

* The 80 minutes are split, so that half of a third-grade class, for instance, studies language arts with its homeroom teacher, while the other half works with an extension teacher on a similar topic or skill.

* There is a teacher for each homeroom, plus six "extension teachers" who work with part of a class -- or parts of several classes -- while the regular teacher is with another group. Extension teachers do remedial instruction, reinforcement and enrichment; some also teach another subject.

For second-grade extension teacher Catherine Beaver, the day goes like this: During the first period of the day, she has 13 students, half of one second-grade class for language arts; second period, she teaches 12 youngsters, the other half of that class; third period, 25 students -- half of each second grade -- for enrichment or remediation in language arts; fourth period, she goes to lunch.

During the afternoon, she has one free period for planning and repeats those groups for math.

"I love it," said Ms. Beaver, who has been an instructional assistant at Lansdowne for 12 years and says the new system better uses her talents.

It also allows classes to try activities that teachers might not tackle with a bigger group. For instance, second-grade teachers are working on writing skills in their small groups, and Ms. Beaver continues their work on several levels. Students with higher ability are writing books; others are working on basic skills such as writing good sentences.

The smaller classes yield some simple, yet tangible, benefits.

"In math, when we drill, we use chalk lap boards," said fifth-grade teacher Anne August. "I can see 12 or 15 boards immediately and there's no time for them to talk."

Ms. Gold said students have "more direct instruction and less seat work. In a class of 24, a teacher will call over eight for a reading group and 16 others are doing something [else] that a teacher has to plan for."

Parent Jackie Rankin says the new scheduling has improved the attitude of her daughter Heather, a fourth-grader. "She's really into a lot of reading and writing. She's doing a lot more of it and she's doing it better."

Mrs. Rankin, whose husband is Lansdowne's PTA president, says the new scheduling was a bit confusing at first. But she has heard no complaints about it.

Fourth-grader Amanda Ashburn, 9, likes the arrangement, too. "You have two teachers and you get more attention."

Few people at Lansdowne see drawbacks, though Ms. Gold said it requires teachers who can plan together and cooperate.

Ms. Beaver cited a lack of planning time as a "very minor" problem; Ms. August said sometimes the 40-minute classes aren't long enough.

Ms. Hopkins agreed: "The only downside is you are locked into a schedule" and cannot reduce or extend lesson time, as needed.

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