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Parent concerns drive reconsideration of multiage class

December 23, 2009
NORTHFIELD — A presentation by experienced multiage classroom teachers gave Sanbornton Central School parents a better understanding of the plan proposed for their school, but it didn't ease all their doubts.

Beaver Meadow Elementary School teachers Barbara O'Brien and Michelle Mulligan appeared at a public hearing during the Winnisquam Regional School Board meeting Monday evening. The two educators were there to explain their own multiage classes as Winnisquam considers instituting one at Sanbornton Central School next fall. Sanbornton's plan would have one first-grade class, one second-grade class, and one first and second-grade class.

O'Brien teaches students in kindergarten through second grade and Mulligan has first and second graders in her class. The women said it is a concept that has worked well at their school.

"If you walked into my classroom you'd see a regular classroom with children working at all levels," O'Brien told the parents who came to learn more about the concept.

Any classroom will see children at varying skill levels, they explained. What their classroom brings is a place for children to work at whatever level they need while experiencing a sense of community.

O'Brien said that children in her classroom can't wait to become second graders, or "the Guides," as she calls them. She said the older children are wonderful about assisting younger students in the class, helping them read and do their class work, get along well with others and even comforting them at times.

For math classes, Mulligan and O'Brien split their students between them and work at two separate levels of math. They both incorporate a science curriculum that has levels for all students in their classrooms. They said students do very well with the mixed age groups, all learning at their own pace. Advanced students are put into independent studies and slower students are encouraged at their own level, bringing them improved learning skills as they progress.

The only drawback they have found, O'Brien said, is when a parent is not properly introduced to what a multiage classroom is all about. She encouraged education for parents who placed their child in such a classroom.

Sanbornton Central School Prinicipal Mikel LaChapelle announced that teacher Renee Bartley was selected to teach the multiage class at his school and would be provided with a mentor to assist.

"Renee is very much looking forward to this, and we felt she was the best choice," LaChappelle said.

She will be trained on using a Smart Board and have first and second grade curriculum at her disposal.

Superintendent Tammy Davis added that Bartley would also be given time to visit the Beaver Meadow classes as well as attend professional development classes in preparation for the class that would begin with the 2010-2011 school year. She also assured parents that the district would monitor student achievement closely.

"We want to make sure that we're meeting their needs with this being the first year of it," Davis said.

Parents had numerous questions and comments for the board and administration. Parent Susan Long questioned the math curriculum with the multiage group. Pointing out that Beaver Meadow had two multiage classes where the teachers found it beneficial to separate the students for better math teaching capabilities, she said, "It doesn't sound like that (math curriculum) will work with only one teacher."

Long also said parents are glad they get to give their "two-cents worth" to the board, but they rarely are informed what decisions the school board makes after hearing from them. She asked that answers to questions posed be published in a public format so that everyone could see the school board's response.

Chairman Mike Gagne acknowledged that parents are often not in attendance when their questions are addressed and stated that he would begin placing their answers on the district Web site.

Parent Jennifer Holt said she was very concerned Sanbornton's outstanding NECAP scores in reading and math would suffer under multiage classes. She commended LaChapelle for his selection of Bartley to lead the class but feared one teacher in a multiage classroom would bring down the levels in what she called, "the best school in your district."

"I don't feel this is being done in the best interest of our kids. It's unfair to ask Renee to take this on. She's an amazing teacher," Holt said.

Parents also questioned the reasoning behind eliminating one teacher from the school with the inception of a multiage class and then hiring a mentor to assist Bartley.

One parent stated she has a daughter in Bartley's class this year and her concern was that Bartley would be absent frequently as she prepares for next year. Sending the teacher to Beaver Meadow and training sessions for next year's class would ultimately hurt children in the first grade this year, she said.

Heather Goodwin told the school board that she was not in opposition to the concept, but as a teacher herself, she cautioned them to be sure it was implemented properly. She asked that they remember this would be a long-term commitment and that Beaver Meadow had two teachers to work together with the students. Further concerns were about tracking the reading programs and that the proper resources would be used in teaching. The Smart Board, she added, was a wonderful idea but she reminded everyone that the equipment requires a strong computer to make it work.

Another teacher, Mark MacLean, said that as an educator he knows that multiage programs can work. His concern would be for the children as they re-enter a traditional setting in third grade. He also felt that Bartley was a great choice, his own daughter having been in her class, but hoped it wouldn't affect the teacher negatively.

"I just want to make sure the students get the same Renee as my daughter had," he said.

Other concerns voiced by parents dealt with what classroom would be used and if the building would need any modifications, how many other schools have gone to multiage programs and how satisfied parents of children in these classes were. Wondering if the move was for "betterment or budget," Tracy Wood also questioned why, if this was being instituted at Sanbornton Central to improve the quality of education, it wasn't being considered for other schools in the district.

Gagne closed the public hearing by saying the board would take their comments under advisement as they consider a final decision. With the budget due to be handed to the Budget Committee by Jan. 11, they will have to decide soon which direction they will take.

"The board owes it to the community to reconsider the multiage class and vote on it. It will determine if we put a teacher back (in the budget) and go on or go with the multiage class," he said.

The board will meet next at 6:30 p.m. on Jan. 4 in the high school.

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