A giant leap forward

Sept 1-7. 2005
VOL 124 NO. 29
A giant leap forward
By Claudia Mathis/ SUN staff writer
St. James School integrates multi-age classroom program into its curriculum

St. James School of Syracuse recently completed its first year of the incorporation of a multi-age classroom setting in grades one through three. “We loved it,” remarked principal Suzanne Donze. “We feel strongly that we had a very successful experience with the multi-age classroom due to the commitment and dedication of the teachers involved, the excitement of the students and the willingness of the parents to keep an open mind from the beginning. It’s a phenomenal program because each child can progress at his or her own level and the interaction between the different-aged children brings them closer together.”

Multi-age educational practices are grounded in a philosophy that holds that every child can learn and has the right to do so at his or her own pace, that learning is a continuum rather than a series of steps, that diversity is not only a reality but is something to be embraced, and that a classroom is a family of learners. By purposefully structuring a class to include a span of ages and to take advantage of the resulting diversity, students naturally become more accepting of one another’s differences. There is an atmosphere of nurturing rather than one of competition in which children pressure one another to fit an arbitrary norm. The teacher finds himself or herself supporting each individual child as to his or her own complex set of needs rather than trying to lead a group of students to complete an age-based step.

Benefits are seen soon after the inception of the multi-age classroom setting. Students demonstrate independence, self-reliance, enhanced self-concepts and perform well on standard academic measures.

Academically, students get to see a wider spectrum of learning as they work with other students ahead of and behind them in this learning process. Older children benefit from working with younger children by explaining solutions in amazing ways, and younger children’s questions can cause older children to look at problems in new ways. The curriculum itself can be more integrated in a multi-grade setting, resulting in less fragmentation. Cooperative learning, through which leadership, communication, and management skills are learned, is what makes multi-age classrooms so successful.

In June 2004, former superintendent for diocesan Catholic schools John Cataldo and director of curriculum Leslie Hughes and the staff and parents of St. James School met to propose the idea of integrating the multi-age program into the curriculum. Those in attendance received the idea positively.

“We decided to try the multi-age classroom program because we thought we would give a better education to the students and because training and support would be provided to the teachers,” explained Donze.

Dr. Sandra Stone, renowned author, college professor and presenter on multi-age classrooms, trained St. James School’s teachers and held parent information meetings at the school. Dr. Stone also observed the teachers and offered many suggestions. She was very impressed with the progress she observed.

Teachers Arlene Shanahan and Bernadette Timmins created an environment in which education was delivered “family style.” Three age groups gathered to learn, experience and grow. The youngest group learned from the older children, experiencing curriculum in a new way. The middle-aged group developed unexpected friendships, strong reading and math skills and Sacramental preparation. The older children prepared to move on with their strong academic skills across the curriculum.

Shanahan, who has taught second grade for over 25 years, said she loves the multi-age classroom concept. “I love how each child learns at his own pace,” said Shanahan. “The children can make more choices about which activity they want to participate in.”

Timmins has taught third grade for the last five years and said that when she taught in the multi-age classroom setting it was her best year of teaching. “I loved watching the interaction between the three ages,” remarked Timmins. “It was great to see the friendships grow and develop among the children. The children were anxious to help their peers. It was exciting to witness the community atmosphere in the classroom. They accepted one another, regardless of their age or grade.”

Parent David Love thinks his son David’s participation in the multi-age classroom setting has increased his self-confidence. “I thought the multi-age classroom concept was a good idea from the start,” remarked Love. It’s a good program – it’s done a lot for David.”

Parent Daniel Rebhahn’s daughter Reilly will be entering third grade this fall. After witnessing the multi-age classroom in action, he feels very fortunate that his daughter is able to attend St. James School. “The multi-age classroom setting is a fantastic alternative,” said Rebhahn. “It gives the children an opportunity to develop their social skills, especially cooperation. The atmosphere in the classroom is more genteel and is conducive to a Christian life in which people help others. I love the program and hope it continues.”

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