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Multi-age classrooms, coming to Lawrence schools next year, raise concerns for teachers

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Some teachers in Lawrence elementary schools are concerned about what multi-age classrooms will look like in the district and the domino effect that may follow.

The Lawrence school board has approved about $6.41 million in budget cuts. About $2.07 million, or 32% of that total, will come from changing elementary class thresholds to eliminate about 34 teaching positions, largely through attrition. 

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The district will be implementing multi-age classrooms, though it is unclear exactly where and how many, primarily because class sizes depend on each year’s enrollment numbers, according to information provided by district spokesperson Julie Boyle. 

Typically, the district assigns staffing ratios based on enrollment, Boyle said. In the new model, the district will look at a school’s enrollment and then assign staff to that school accordingly. Then, individual buildings will be able to decide how to split classrooms — like at a first and second grade split, or at a fourth and fifth grade split — depending on what the numbers allow with a maximum threshold of 25 students for K-3 classrooms, and 30 students for grades 4-5. 

Broken Arrow Elementary currently uses multi-age periods in which students from different grade levels but similar academic achievement levels work together in individualized instruction. Despite the fact that she likes that program, Melissa Howard, a second grade teacher at Broken Arrow, is concerned about what multi-age classrooms may look like next year.

“I haven’t talked to a teacher yet that feels super great about next year. I think every teacher is brushing up their résumé and keeping their options open,” she said.

How the numbers pan out

Documents from the district’s Budget and Program Evaluation Committee show examples of multi-age classrooms across elementary schools as a result of the ratio adjustment. In one example, Broken Arrow Elementary could have three multi-age classrooms: K-1, 1-2, and 2-3. However, the rest of its classrooms would remain single-grade if preliminary enrollment numbers pan out.

“Of course, the numbers ultimately depend on student enrollment by school and grade level next year,” Boyle said. For instance, the example in the documentation shows no multi-age classrooms at Cordley or Schwegler elementaries because the projected enrollment levels would create even-sized classes. The other 11 elementaries’ projected student populations are less consistent from grade to grade. 

In that Broken Arrow example, the classrooms might be broken down like this: 19 kindergarteners with six first-graders; 15 first-graders with eight second-graders; and 13 second-graders with 10 third-graders. 

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“If I were to teach a multi-age classroom, some of the things I would have to deal with are two sets of curriculum, two sets of standards, two different types of grade cards,” Howard said. “And juggling all of that, I think, will be difficult without a really good plan in place and lots of training — which, at this point … we won’t get the training needed to do that successfully.”

Boyle said teachers will not be responsible for teaching two sets of curriculum.

“The district has identified the priority learning standards for each grade level and teachers would continue to adapt instruction to meet student needs,” Boyle said. “Our teachers always focus on differentiating instruction to meet students where they are and help them grow and improve.”

Melissa Howard

Howard said that her understanding of the system so far is that, in a multi-age classroom, students will be combined with learners of a similar ability in different grades. For example, high-achieving kindergarteners might be with low-achieving first graders, or high-achieving second graders might be with low-achieving third graders.

“If they want to push second and third grade together, that is, to me, one of the worst case scenarios because third graders do state testing and second graders don’t,” Howard said. “I’ve taught both second and third grade, and there is a very large social and academic jump between second and third grade, so that’s a concern.” 

Though the system of putting students of similar abilities together sounds simple on paper, Howard sees several complications, like the fact that the district is implementing a new Elementary English Language Arts program next year, the thought of two second grade students in the same peer group wondering why one of them is in a class combined with first graders and the other in one combined with third, or the prospect of one teacher having a larger caseload of Individualized Education Plans.

“It is going to be probably a little lopsided with behaviors and IEPs to deal with, and that kind of stuff,” Howard said. “With Broken Arrow having two teachers per (grade level), currently, we try to (make sure) … one teacher isn’t dealing with more than the other, and so I don’t know how that would be addressed.” 

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During a March 22 special school board meeting, Superintendent Anthony Lewis said he sees opportunities for growth in multi-age classrooms. An example he provided is if a student in third grade is performing at a fourth-grade level, it may be more beneficial for them to be in a third and fourth grade split. A third and fourth grade level split will not happen — the only combined classrooms for fourth graders will be with fifth graders — though Lewis was only using this as an example.

However, he also acknowledged that this will be “a tremendous amount of work from a curriculum standpoint.” He said the curriculum team will need to do some “scaffolding” of standards and decide how to effectively use the resources the district has.

Howard said she was “super disappointed” that the district suggested this would be a positive experience for teachers and families, “when they really haven’t dug in and explored this, I think, properly.”

Shannon Berquist, a parent in the district and part of Save Our Schools 497, is “cautiously optimistic” about what multi-age classrooms might mean for her child, a Broken Arrow second grader with dyslexia. It could really benefit him to be in a classroom with younger students, she said.

“I actually think that, if done properly, multi-age could be really good for those who are, like my student, that need extra support,” she said. “It’s hard being the student who is maybe behind their peers continually, and it feels like, to me, that if he were working with students who are at the same academic level as he is, it would possibly allow him to be more confident in his abilities, which could lead to more growth.”

The same could be said for students who are ahead, she said, and need enrichment activities.

“That situation, where they would be maybe with a slightly older peer group … that are at the same level as them academically, that could be a really positive thing for students,” Berquist said. 

Even with uncertainty about the makeup of classrooms, some things will stay the same. Boyle said that placement in multi-grade classrooms would follow similar guidelines to what the district currently uses for single-grade class placement: “considering students’ academic, social-emotional and behavioral needs, personality, friendships, and connections.”

“Building principals use teacher input and work to place students with the goal of creating classroom communities that are both balanced and diverse,” Boyle said. 

Parents are given the opportunity each spring to share information about their child and how they learn best, she said. Schools use that as supplemental information in placing students, but do not accept teacher preference requests.

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Class thresholds and specials

As a result of the school board’s vote, the district next year will no longer use school-specific classroom thresholds at its elementaries. This year, Title I schools — those that qualify for extra federal funding to help minimize disparities in math and reading — and schools with the most students experiencing low socioeconomic status have smaller class size thresholds than schools such as Deerfield, Langston Hughes and Quail Run. Next year, targeted class-size thresholds will be equal across the district.

“This is true for every teacher at the elementary level: you are asking us to do more work, but with no extra pay, no extra training, no extra time. We will be asked to be teaching more students, even though it looks like we’ll be teaching less sections … So that’s a little frustrating,” Emily Boedeker, a music teacher at Woodlawn and Cordley Elementaries, said.  

Emily Boedeker

With class size thresholds changing, Boedeker is particularly concerned about music classrooms and the number of instruments she will be able to provide her students. She said she already doesn’t have a full set of instruments for her current class sizes, so adding additional students in each class will make things more difficult.

Once they heard the news, many specials teachers (including classes like art, computers, music, and gym) wondered if students would be able to stay with their age group — which is critical information because so much of specials curriculum is age- and grade-specific, Boedeker said. 

“It’s not just OK, mentally, can these kids learn these songs? Yes, I’m sure. But do they have the fine motor skills to play these instruments? Are they able to cross their midline? Are they able to form the chords on the ukulele? There’s some things that really come with size and maturity that no one’s thought of when we’re talking about combining different ages of kids,” she said.

At the March 22 board meeting, Leah Wisdom, the district’s director of instruction and professional development, said that, looking at other models currently in place, the district can consider students remaining with their grade-level peers for activities like recess and specials. She also explained that math is often still taught by grade level in multi-age settings.

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“There’s ways to kind of play with the schedule to allow that to happen, but all those other content areas then allow for that spectrum on the standards, which I think is a great opportunity,” Wisdom said during the meeting. 

Boedeker and Howard don’t think this is possible, as it will impact teachers’ already-limited plan times. 

Howard’s plan time is when her students are in specials. To complicate the matter further, she has a second grade teaching partner who she works with during a combined plan time. 

“And if one of us is doing a (traditional) classroom and one of us is doing a combined classroom and we have different special schedules, then we’re losing our combined plan time as well,” she said. “So I think the problem is there’s just so many dominoes that are gonna fall without this being well planned that it makes me worried that it’s not going to be successful for students or teachers.”

Boedeker noted the same problem, saying it “can’t work” and is “unfair to the classroom teachers, so, really, we’ll have multi-age music classrooms as well.” 

She also said that, in her perspective as someone who teaches in a building that typically has smaller class sizes, multi-age classrooms will “be a shock” to students.

“For them to having gone from class sizes of 15, where their teacher is able to differentiate instruction and really be creative and make sure that these kids are getting what they need, to now this teacher is going to have 25 to 30 kids in their room, I think that’s gonna be a pretty big change,” she said. “I can tell you, we’ll be doing more classroom management rather than teaching.”

Banded intervention times — Multi-aging at Broken Arrow

Multi-age classrooms were common in the district in the early 2000s, Boyle said. Today,  Broken Arrow Elementary has “banded intervention times,” in which students of different ages come together and receive individualized instruction based on need. 

“They go to second grade specials, we do science and social studies and writing as a second grade, but then we break apart and every student is getting what they need during that time,” Howard said. “… And that makes sense. We can shuffle them up for a certain amount of time, and my students come back to me for my whole group lesson that’s second grade based.” 

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Howard said she likes the system, which has been implemented in the past two years, because “it’s really focusing our teaching time on students’ needs based on data we’ve collected, and not just expecting everybody to learn in the classroom at the same time.”

Of the potential opportunities and benefits to students, Boedeker said that “any type of curriculum or instruction change” has the potential to be positive for students, as long as it’s done right.

“We need to do it with fidelity. We need to have training. We need to have time to get together and make these changes. We need to have communication. If that does not happen, I don’t think it will be positive,” she said.

That kind of planning hasn’t been possible thus far. 

“We literally have heard absolutely nothing. And it’s frustrating when we’re watching board meetings, trying to get morsels of information, and then they don’t even talk about it,” Boedeker said. “I have no idea where I’m going to work next year. There is no communication and no transparency, and it is very, very frustrating.”

Boedeker has faith in the district’s teachers, saying they “can do absolutely anything,” but that, after the struggles of COVID, these challenges feel more difficult than ever.

“I think the past few years have shown that our teachers in this district can teach online, can teach online and in person at the same time, (handle) any curveball that is thrown to us, but at this point, we’re tired. … We’re just exhausted.”

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Emma Bascom (she/her), reporter, can be reached at ebascom (at) lawrencekstimes (dot) com. Read more of her work for the Times here.

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