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Teacher Lovie Hall shows Kazuma Carter, 6, the basics of math in a multi-age classroom Friday. Some teachers say the three-grade classroom allows students to mentor each other based on their individual strengths.
Teacher Lovie Hall shows Kazuma Carter, 6, the basics of math in a multi-age classroom Friday. Some teachers say the three-grade classroom allows students to mentor each other based on their individual strengths. (Erik Slavin / S&S)
Teacher Lovie Hall shows Kazuma Carter, 6, the basics of math in a multi-age classroom Friday. Some teachers say the three-grade classroom allows students to mentor each other based on their individual strengths.
Teacher Lovie Hall shows Kazuma Carter, 6, the basics of math in a multi-age classroom Friday. Some teachers say the three-grade classroom allows students to mentor each other based on their individual strengths. (Erik Slavin / S&S)
Joseph DiGiovanni, 8, answers a math question from E.C. Killin Elementary School teacher Lovie Hall in Hall’s multi-age classroom Friday.
Joseph DiGiovanni, 8, answers a math question from E.C. Killin Elementary School teacher Lovie Hall in Hall’s multi-age classroom Friday. (Erik Slavin / S&S)
Lovie Hall shows Kazuma Carter, 6, left, and Jayden Young, 6, sitting, some math basics during class in Hall’s multi-age classroom Friday.
Lovie Hall shows Kazuma Carter, 6, left, and Jayden Young, 6, sitting, some math basics during class in Hall’s multi-age classroom Friday. (Erik Slavin / S&S)

CAMP FOSTER, Okinawa — The phrase “multi-age classroom” may bring about visions of red brick schoolhouses nestled in countryside towns.

Most schools of adequate size moved away from including several grades and ages in one class generations ago, giving way to what we now think of as traditional: single grades of children grouped by age and learning from one curriculum.

In some cases, educators are rethinking their approach.

Multi-age classrooms began a resurgence in public schools in the late 1990s when Congress funded the Early Childhood Initiative.

There are now 36 multi-age elementary classrooms at 12 Pacific Department of Defense Dependents Schools, including three schools in Korea, four in mainland Japan and five in Okinawa.

“Children really get to know the teacher well,” said Jane Schneider, elementary curriculum specialist for DODDS Pacific. “The teacher knows what the children need and develops a long-term relationship with the families.”

Some teachers at Okinawa elementary schools say they wholeheartedly believe in the multi-age philosophy after three years of experience with the classes.

Because most children have at least one “strength,” the structure allows those who are weak in some areas to lead their class in others.

“A child who might otherwise fall through the cracks can really shine,” said Bechtel Elementary teacher Melinda Castillo, who enrolled her son in a multi-age class. “It’s a great boost to their self-esteem.”

While the older children often lead, sometimes the younger children excel in a specific area and get to show off their skills, said E.C. Killin teacher Cassandra Davis.

The varying knowledge levels between older and younger students have led to many academic studies comparing multi-age and single-grade structures.

Multi-age proponents say the structure promotes more realistic social skills, since adults are rarely grouped socially by age outside of school.

Children then learn and mentor each other in a healthy, give-and-take relationship, said consultant Susan Stone, who trained DODDS teachers while visiting Okinawa last week.

Stone is a professor at Northern Arizona University, where she is founder and director of the National Multiage Institute.

“There is more working together and more sharing,” Stone said. “They do a lot of learning from each other.”

Teachers say they often break their classes into small groups to encourage students to learn from each other.

Skeptics of the multi-age philosophy argue that it puts too much stress on teachers, who must develop multiple curriculums for the same class. They also say that teachers have less time to devote to those curriculums.

However, teachers cite advantages of a multi-age setting that actually increase the amount of new material they can introduce.

“You’ve already worked with 50 percent of the kids, so you don’t need as much time assessing,” Castillo said. “You can jump in (to teaching) a lot quicker.”

Is a multi-age class right for your child?

Teachers and academic experts say parents should ask about the following factors when determining whether to choose a multi-age class for their child:

Teacher ability and skill in organization and planning.Class size.Balance of different year-level groups.Number of children with challenging behavioral problems.Range of student abilities, achievement and styles of learning, especially independence.Arrangements for students to mix with their year-level peers in other classes for activities such as sports and excursions.Organization of a two- or three-year curriculum, so that students do not miss out on curriculum coverage.Time taken to deal with any additional parent pressure.Sources: Studies by Charlie Naylor, British Columbia Teacher’s Federation; V.J. Russell, University of Melbourne.

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