Parents, teachers debate multilevel classes


It was meant to be a joyous occasion but, when students, parents and teachers gathered for a day-before-school picnic at Point Dume Marine Science Elementary, some parents left angry, even in tears. The posted list of classes showed only one kindergarten and one first-grade class. Three classes were a combination of both.

Multilevel or mixed-grade classes are becoming more popular with educators and are being used in many charter schools as a way of allowing children with advanced skills in one subject — math or language, for instance — to do advanced work in that subject without changing classes. Multi-age classes are also used to meet class enrollment limits.

Principal Randie Stern said the decision to create so many multi-age classes “was educationally sound for our school.” This year, the state-mandated 20-1 student-to-teacher ratio was expanded to include kindergarten, and Point Dume was required to take the overflow when Webster and Juan Cabrillo schools filled up. “We needed to make some adjustments because we’ve had so many new students. The next child that came in, we wanted to make sure we had room,” Stern said.

Karen Connor, mother of a first-grader registered at Point Dume, said she would place her daughter in another school or even home-school her before putting her in a K-1 class. “I pulled her out mainly because, emotionally, it would have been a step backwards for her to start school with kindergartners. I don’t think it’s a good idea to take a first-grader who’s already gone through that and make them sit through it again,” Connor said. “First-graders are looking to do more than just play. They’re looking to do more learning. They shouldn’t be distracted by kids who don’t know how to raise their hands and don’t know how to ask questions.”

Connor was not alone. Other parents expressed similar concerns.

“It’s old thinking,” said Stern, who used a 1-2 grade combination as an example. In years past, “If you were the second-grader, you were the low child. If you were the first-grader, you were the smart child,” she said.

According to Stern, that kind of thinking has no place in today’s schools, where multi-age classes abound. “We really believe in the concept of multi-age classes,” said Stern. Even among single-grade classes, there is a “significant variation in maturity,” said Stern. “It’s easier to have their needs met in a multi-age class. It gives them the opportunity to grow at their own pace and not just be given a textbook that says, ‘Third grade, this is what we’re doing.'”

The advantages for younger children seem more obvious. They are exposed to a more sophisticated level of work and to older, presumably more mature students. “Kindergartners in our K-1 have had fewer behavioral problems than students in regular kindergarten,” said Webster Elementary Principal Phil Cott. “It definitely works for the kids.” Cott said there are “plenty of experiences that are appropriate for both kindergartners and first-graders. The first-graders do more with a project.”

Both Stern and Cott said multi-age classes can also offer a challenging environment for the older child, particularly in building social and leadership skills. “They’re looked up to, they’re older. They have a chance to model good behavior,” said Cott.

“Children get an opportunity to work together,” said Stern. “It’s good in terms of assessing their own growth. It helps to build self-esteem. It also gives children who have greater leadership a chance to help others who don’t.”

The principals say, in a multi-age classroom, teachers are more likely to work on the level of each individual student. “Your thinking already is that you’re dealing with a span, rather than a blanket policy for all,” said Stern. “We look at the whole child and look at them from a developmental level so that each child can be successful at their own pace.”

“The teachers’ job is to find out what those kids are all about,” said Cott. Developmentally, there are “huge differences,” he added. “That’s to be expected.”

How do the teachers feel about multi-age classes? “They absolutely love it,” said Stern, “because it works.”

After enrollment settled down, Point Dume did some reorganizing. Now there are two kindergartens, two first-grade classes and one K-1. Stern said the change was not due to pressure from parents. “If you do that, you’re not looking at what’s right for the child. You’re looking to please people.”