Experiment builds on classroom bonds Looping: Students, parents and educators see benefits in matching pupils and teachers for two years in a row.

January 24, 1998|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

When Samkele Vundla and her classmates graduated to third grade last fall, their former second-grade teacher joined them -- part of an unusual but growing national movement that puts teachers and students together for more than one year at a time.

"I already knew the classroom rules, and she knew my name," says Samkele, 8, who attends Bedford Elementary School in the Pikesville area. "It made it easier to come to school."

In a bid to forge tighter bonds between teachers and students, a second-grade teacher at Bedford has for the past two years taught third grade the following year, letting many students have the same instructor two years in a row.

Known as "looping," the practice is earning converts among educators who believe that instruction improves when teachers work with students over longer periods of time and get to know them better -- a concept dating to the one-room schoolhouse.

"It just made sense to try it," says Bedford Principal Barbara Clark. "In the second year with the same teacher, the children are able to start learning from the first day.

"There's no start-up time lost at the beginning of the year learning students' names and teaching them classroom rules."

Across the nation, a growing number of schools are trying to "loop" students, according to the Society for Developmental Education in Peterborough, N.H.

"It's becoming very, very popular nationally," says Jim Grant, a former teacher and principal who founded the organization more than 20 years ago. He estimates that more than 1,000 schools are looping at least one class of students.

"Basically, it values the idea of significant relationships," Grant says. "Instead of building relationships for 36 weeks and then ending them and starting over the next fall, looping aims to continue building on those relationships."

The main drawback is that it requires extra work from teachers who over a two-year period must learn the curriculum of two grades and prepare two sets of lessons.

The practice was one of several reforms recommended by Willard R. Daggett -- one of the nation's leading authorities on educational change -- during a daylong conference attended by all Baltimore County principals last month.

Maryland educators don't know how many elementary schools are trying looping. Such statistics are not collected centrally, they say.

Uncommon practice

"It's not a common practice in Maryland," says Margaret Trader, assistant state superintendent for instruction and staff development. She says it's more likely to occur in a smaller school where teachers need to switch grades because of fluctuations in enrollment and staff.

An extreme example can be found in the private Waldorf schools -- including the one in Baltimore -- in which students are assigned to the same teacher for first through eighth grade.

While Trader says state education officials are reluctant to endorse looping without seeing more research on its effect on student achievement, Bedford was one of 17 schools featured in a recent state document focusing on successful school reforms.

On the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program, Bedford third-graders jumped from 33.3 percent scoring satisfactory in 1996 to 48.4 scoring satisfactory in 1997.

County educators attribute much of that gain to the first class of students to work with the same teacher for two years. But they, too, acknowledge that it will be several years before any definitive conclusions can be made.

'Able to accomplish so much'

At Bedford, looping began in the summer of 1996, after then-second grade teacher Andrea Kowaleski read some articles the subject. She volunteered to follow her students to third grade.

"I was kind of hesitant, because I had gotten second grade down to a science," says Kowaleski, now a mentor teacher in the Dundalk area. "But it was one of the best decisions I could have made. It was exciting to learn a new curriculum, and I was able to accomplish so much working with the same children for another year."

Parents and students say that by the second year of working with Kowaleski, they had built strong relationships that made it easier to communicate.

"My daughter was very shy when she started second grade, and she didn't really open up in class until near the end of the school year," says Vanessa Adams, whose daughter, Brittany, is now in fourth grade. "With a new teacher, she might have had to start over, but with Mrs. Kowaleski she felt very comfortable on the first day of school and is now out of her shyness."

This school year, teacher Colleen Kirvin made a similar move. "I knew exactly what the children had learned last year and was able to build on that."

Third-grader Michael Burnett says that from the first day of school, the teacher knew more about him than just what he was supposed to have learned last year. "She knows when I'm goofing off," he says.

Michael's brother, Bryan, a fourth-grader, was also part of Bedford's looping experiment in second and third grades.

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