Our Long, Winding Road to Multiage Classrooms

by Suzanne R. Melliger

Oh, the excitement of being named a principal for the first time! I had waited for this opportunity for years when finally I was assigned to be the principal of Pinewood Elementary School in Omaha, Neb.

At that time, the school I inherited served 350 students in grades K-6. Originally, there was no full-day kindergarten program or a pre-kindergarten program. The free and reduced lunch count was 53 percent, and the school’s racial makeup included 34 percent nonwhite students. In terms of demographics, my new school was a near match with the school district’s characteristics.

Now imagine the surprise when I discovered that the school I would be leading ranked 56th among 59 schools in academic performance in the school district. I knew then I was in for quite a ride.

Of course, the sense of denial schoolwide was strong. Parents didn’t accept the fact their school was not performing well, nor did they see the importance of the ratings anyway. As one parent stated at a PTA meeting: “You don’t enter a restaurant and ask how the state rated them. You don’t choose a restaurant by those ratings, and nobody pays attention to these school ratings either.”

The teachers didn’t believe for an instant this ranking could be valid. So we called in one of the school district’s best researchers and grilled her about the ranking and how the district research department and the local newspaper arrived at their conclusion about our low mark. Unfortunately, the research department had all of the answers to support our performance ranking. We could not debate the bottom line.

Begrudgingly, the teachers accepted the fact that much was amiss in the way instruction was delivered and some changes had to be made. Much of the staff became angry at the assessment. However, a core group of teachers was ready to face the situation about our poor standing. Their goal was to find a way to work with the physical structure of our building--which was open with no doors and few walls and what walls we had didn’t extend up to the ceiling--and to improve their instructional practices.

This core group of eight teachers studied the research to find strategies that had proven successful for other schools. Soon they settled on the concept of multiage classrooms. At this point, the real studying began. The core group began to feverishly research multiage programs throughout the country. They found a few multiage schools right in Omaha’s metropolitan area. They visited multiage schools in the region and outside of the state. The group became excited about what they saw. It was time to focus on this one philosophy for our school.

A Pilot Classroom

After a full year of research and planning, one teacher was brave enough to pilot a grade 5/6 multiage classroom. She was given a smaller class list than her colleagues in order to meet the needs of each of her students. The class was a heterogeneous group. She developed a two-year-long plan to teach her students. The 5 th-grade students would remain with her for their 6 th-grade year.

The students in the 5/6 class were assessed in each subject area. The assessment results were collected and placed in individual files for each student. The students were happy to discover they would not have to relearn entire chapters from their textbook just because the rest of the class needed the information. The teacher used curriculum compacting to guarantee that students were getting the instruction they needed at an appropriate level.

Throughout the year, students’ progress was monitored and recorded. Their growth was plotted on graphs so they along with their parents could note their progress. At the end of the school year, we discovered the multiage classroom students’ tests scores were at least as high or higher in some subject s than those in traditional classrooms.

Based on the first-year results, the central office permitted an expansion of multiage classrooms. Parents were allowed to choose which type of classroom they wanted for their child.

As the number of classrooms increased, we needed to ensure all teachers were knowledgeable about the philosophy. All teachers who wanted to learn about multiage were granted professional leave time with a substitute teacher provided to visit other multiage schools. During one districtwide in-service day, the school’s entire teaching staff traveled 50 miles to observe a multiage school that had been operating for several years.

Additionally, 12 staff members attended the annual conference in Ohio on best practices for looping and multiage classrooms run by Staff Development for Educators, with all expenses paid by a grant. In years following, every classroom teacher was able to attend the conference.

A professional library was developed at the school and teachers were encouraged to continually read about multiage groupings and differentiation of instruction. Teachers encouraged parents to check out books from our professional library, too. An occasional article went home to parents via the school newsletter to keep them informed. Staff used evening meetings to inform parents and answer questions.

Unexpected Obstacles

With the thought that we had laid the groundwork for the transition to a full multiage school, we announced through the school’s monthly newsletter that our school would be a complete multiage school starting with the next school year. The newsletter went home on a Friday. By that evening a few upset parents had distributed via e-mail a critical response to all members of the board of education. I was informed of the contents and was asked to attend the next board meeting.

At the school board meeting several teachers and I were met by a handful of parents in opposition to the transition. They hadn’t shared their complaints with me previously, opting to make a direct run at the school board. They aired the complaints dealing with their perceptions of what a change to multiage classrooms would entail in front of the news media. Their grievances amounted to misinformation about how a multiage school would operate. They had a voice and they wanted to be heard.

It seemed the best way to settle the issue would be to continue our attempts to educate the parents. New study groups that included staff and parents were formed and articles about the implementation of multiage classes were given to parents in advance of the study group meeting. A facilitator from central office was present and notes were recorded. After the first study meeting, parents complained that the articles were biased, so the information was irrelevant. To accommodate them, we decided to have the parents select the articles one week and the administration the next and the cycle was repeated.

Once the parents decided no more study groups were needed, the next logical step was to survey the parents. The central office developed a survey and mailed it to all families. Although we had to chase many surveys, we ended up with a resounding 82 percent return with more than 75 percent of the responding families in favor of reopening the school fully as a multiage school the following school year.

Along with the implementation of a multiage program at Pinewood came a great deal of success. Each year that passed marked another record year of improvement in student achievement. Now, after multiage classrooms have been in place for six years, the most recent ranking of schools by the local newspaper using state test scores placed us 18 th among the 60 elementary schools in the district. Our school also has been named an Exemplary School (the only one of 84 schools in the district) in science and math by the Banneker Community of Excellence in Math and Science Project.

Also, notably, three of the five parents who so vehemently opposed the multiage concept continue to send their children to the multiage program at our school via a six-mile bus trip instead of a school 1½ miles from their home.

A Better Measure

The multiage program requires an enormous amount of long-range planning and detailed daily preparations by teachers. The planning component already was difficult, but it has become even more so due to the state’s required testing of specific subject standards in particular grade levels. The state tests are obviously designed to accommodate the lock-step grade-level schools.

As teachers and schools are held more accountable for students passing the tests within a designated time frame, the pressure on teachers requires them to work and plan smarter. It takes incredibly talented and dedicated teachers to pull off the multiage program while still meeting all of the state’s testing requirements. Educators must continue to work with lawmakers so they understand that teaching and testing with no regard to a child’s developmental stage is not a true measure of a student’s ability.

Suzanne Melliger is principal of Aldrich Elementary School in the Millard Public School District, 506 N. 162 nd Ave., Omaha, NE 68118. E-mail: srmelliger@mpsomaha.org


Suzanne Melliger recommends the following reading relating to her article:

Nongradedness: Helping It to Happen by Robert H. Anderson and Barbara Nelson Pavan, Technomic Publishing Co., Lancaster, Pa.

Leading in a Culture of Change by Michael Fullan, Jossey-Bass, San Francisco

A Common Sense Guide to Multiage Practices by Jim Grant, Crystal Springs Books, Peterborough, N.H.

The Multiage Handbook: A Comprehensive Resource for Multiage Practices by Jim Grant, Crystal Springs Books, Peterborough, N.H.

“The Benefits of Mixed-Age Grouping,” by Lilian G. Katz, Clearinghouse on Elementary and Early Childhood Education, Champaign, Ill.