District develops new wave in multi-age education

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Since the idea was first thrown around in March, a group of Socorro Consolidated Schools’ teachers and administrators have been busy developing the multi-age classroom concept for its implementation at Parkview Elementary in the upcoming fall semester.

During a school board meeting April 28, SCS Superintendent Randall Earwood said the district was awarded the K-3 Plus grant, which will help fund the Socorro Primary Academic Readiness Kinder through 2nd Grade program, sensibly referred to as SPARK-2. The grant was written to include 260 students in K-3 Plus; the number of children who actually enroll will determine what piece of the approximate-$300,000 piece of pie the district will receive.

In March, Earwood put together a committee of educators and administrators tasked to brainstorm ideas and assist in the development of SPARK-2.

Teachers in the committee agreed that children cannot be forced to learn, they must be inspired; they said this program aims to do just that.

Stephanie O’Toole, a first-grade teacher at Parkview Elementary, said one of the goals of SPARK-2 is to make learning relevant for the child.

“It’s not the traditional practice where you sit in a desk and you learn what everyone else learns because you’re in first grade or because you’re in second grade,” she said.

O’Toole said a student doesn’t have to be at the same level as his or her neighbor, just because they happen to be the same age; it’s focus is more on “where they’re at and how far we can get them.”

She said the goal is still to bring all students to higher levels, but without the stresses and pressures that the current system puts on them.

“It’s a great way to start a new educational wave in the community,” she said.

Parkview Principal Rey Carrejo emphasized that SPARK-2 will allow children to work at their own pace, which he said will be advantageous for both teachers and students involved.

A handful of teachers from the SPARK-2 committee recently had the opportunity to visit elementary schools in Las Cruces and observe, firsthand, students interacting in a multi-age environment; LCPS implemented its Joint (K-2) Ungraded Multi-age Primary program in 2012.

Much of the instruction revolved around an educational tool not often associated with conventional supplies in a public school – Legos.

Parkview second-grade teacher Jody Lee-Chadde said the activities provided by Lego are aligned with common core state standards and revolve around hands-on activities that touch on a variety of subjects without any “right or wrong answers.”

Lupita Vallejos, also a second-grade teacher at Parkview, noted that during her visit to Booker T Washington Elementary in Las Cruces, the students were very engaged when using WeDo – a computer-based program that mixes Legos with technology to teach simple robotics’ programing – and said it really showcased the students’ problem-solving skills and motivation.

“If it didn’t work, they didn’t give up. They continued working until they got the right code,” she said.

Parkview first-grade teacher Jill Bratton, who is new to the district, said the level of engagement and the writing that comes out of the work with Legos is “phenomenal.” “When you’re in those classrooms, until you really look at the writing and look at the product, you can’t really tell what grade the child should be in,” she said.

Lee-Chadde, who visited a multi-age class at Conlee Elementary, said students in the class, while working in separate groups – or “centers” – and within different subject areas, all collaborated together.

“The kids were talking to each other about what they were reading, what they had to code, what they had to do next,” she said. “The kids were engaged.”

Earwood said during the visit to Las Cruces, it was difficult to tell “who was a kindergarten student, who was a first-grader, who was a second-grader because they were all working together.”

Vallejos said because the program is interactive, it allows students to work both in groups and individually.

“Everyone was focused on their own learning,” Vallejos said. “It was eye opening.”

Socorro’s multi-age classrooms won’t be a carbon copy of those in Las Cruces. Unlike LCPS, the SPARK-2 committee has decided they will accept second-language learners as well as children with Individualized Educational Plans, which includes gifted and other special education students.

And criteria for student placement in the program – which will likely be based on test scores and teacher recommendations – is still being discussed, but Earwood said the district is too small to only focus on the lowest performing ten percent. He said there may be students who, although academically proficient, lack social skills and may be a good fit for the program.

“One of the benefits (of SPARK-2) is it fits the total child: social skills, academic skills and child development – all of these go hand in hand with this program,” Earwood said.

Between the kits, software and iPads used with the Lego program, as well as the training required for the teachers, some members of the board voiced concerns about the overall price tag.

“We need to really look at this before we just jump into it. It seems like it’s going to cost us a lot of money,” board member Pauline Jaramillo said.

Board member James Chavez emphasized that with “so many programs out there,” it’s important to find one that fits Socorro’s district.

“The cost is miniscule compared to what the kids will get out of it,” Vallejos said.

Chavez said the district needs to be careful and take its time.

“If we do it improperly, some of these kids could use a year of education,” he said.

Other concerns that surfaced during the meeting focused on tracking student progress, which the superintendent said would be addressed through short-cycle assessments and standards-based report cards.

Earwood said the district has been looking into the multi-age programs because of the “big push” from the governor to require students to achieve reading proficiency by the third grade. New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez has been pushing the legislature to pass a law to retain third-graders who can’t demonstrate reading proficiency.

“The only way to combat this is to help the kids at an early age, by focusing on kindergarten, first and second grade,” he said. “Everything we have seen (within the program) is a positive.”

Earwood said parents can expect to see letters in their mailboxes this month from the district about the implementation of SPARK-2.