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Small schools can be retained with multi-age grouping

Franklin (PA) News-Herald (Part 2)
Friday, Oct. 31, 2008

By Thomas Hylton

The Franklin Area School District has a superb system of small, family-friendly elementary schools.  Can the district afford to keep them all?  Although the current question is whether to retain the Seventh Street Elementary School, with about 120 pupils, Franklin has two other very small schools:  Polk, with about 130 pupils, and Utica, with about 100.  It is difficult if not impossible to retain uniform class sizes with such small schools, and the district can hardly afford to support classes with one teacher for 8 to 12 pupils.

But with creativity and flexibility, small schools can be retained.  For example, a few years ago in Wyoming I met a young man named Bill Murphy whose entire public school education was completed in one building that housed just 90 students, encompassing grades K through 12 in a tiny town called Ten Sleep.  There were seven students in his graduating class.  He had the same English teacher for seven years (from sixth grade through his senior year) and other teachers for multiple years.

Far from feeling deprived, Murphy told me he wouldn’t have traded his school experience for any other.  “We received much more individual attention than you could have received at a larger school,” he said. Murphy participated in every extra-curricular activity and in every sport – football (6-man teams), basketball, and track.  He felt well prepared for the University of Wyoming (enrollment: 13,000) where he earned a bachelor’s degree in communications.

To make the Ten Sleep School work, two grade levels are often combined in one classroom, such as first and second grade and third and fourth grade.  At the secondary level, not only are grade levels combined, but a math teacher might be teaching trigonometry and calculus to different students in the same class.

Multi-aged grouping

Many educators argue that placing children of different ages in the same classroom, called “multi-aged grouping,” is actually a superior method of education.  They point out that students of the same age have an enormous range of abilities.  A typical third grade classroom, for example, might include children reading at a first grade level and doing math at a fifth grade level.  Individual children have a wide range of abilities as well.  A child who is a poor reader might be a whiz at math. 

With multi-aged grouping, children have more opportunities to work at their own pace and develop skills when they are developmentally ready.  Older students in the class can help teach younger students.  This helps children bond, and it builds the confidence of the mentoring student. 

The old-fashioned one-room schoolhouse is the most famous example of multi-aged grouping.  Here’s how one educator described it:

            “Teachers in one-room schoolhouses almost never lectured.  These teachers knew there wasn’t much they could say simultaneously to a roomful of kids of different ages and stages of learning.  So teachers moved from one group of two or three students to another.  Because they couldn’t spend much time with any group, they usually assigned some work to each, periodically returning to offer help where it was needed.  And teachers frequently asked students who’d mastered a particular task to help those who were struggling to learn it. 

            “What one-room school teachers did out of necessity – avoid teacher talk and get kids to do work on their own or in small groups – is actually a superior way of getting them to learn.”

One-room schoolhouses still exist.  One of the top-ranked elementary schools in Oregon, for example, is the rural Keating Elementary School in Baker County, in which teacher Kathi Shaw mentors 25 children in grades K-5 with one assistant.

Multi-aged grouping could be a way for the Franklin Area School District to retain its small schools in a cost-effective manner and still equalize class size throughout the district.

But it can’t happen by in one fell swoop or by administrative fiat.  Multi-aged grouping is highly challenging for teachers because it requires a great deal of flexibility and careful planning.  Trying to impose it from above would be a disaster.  As Seventh Street School principal James Ruby says about his faculty, “I can suggest, and I can give out ideas, but they have to want to do it.”

Small schools are worth the effort

Schools reflect a community’s values.  In an age where many Pennsylvania school districts are building Wal-Mart-sized elementary schools in the name of “efficiency,” the Franklin Area School District stands out as a shining star for the nurturing, caring environments it creates for its children.

If the community can come together, I believe the state Department of Education will provide a variance for the district to renovate Central Elementary School now and still have the option to add classrooms later.  That will give the district precious time to explore multi-aged grouping -- or other strategies -- to keep its small neighborhood schools.

It won’t be easy, but it will be worth the effort.







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