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Rethinking Schools: Scenes From the Front Line of Education Reform in L.A. : Multi-Age, Multi-Grade Classrooms Improve Performance, Self-Esteem : Elizabeth Street Center emphasizes group cooperation, not competition, in younger grades. Advanced students serve as role models for others.


The little ones crowded onto the carpet around their teacher, reading aloud in unison from a poster-sized book. "Vrrooom! . . . Vrroooom goes the bus!' they screeched and giggled while reading about the travails of a yellow school bus.

Not every child is actually reading. Some are not talking at all and are simply engaged by the pictures and story. Others are fixated on trying to carefully pronounce new words.

The breadth of reading abilities in Room 401 is part of a carefully planned experiment in "multi-age teaching" at Elizabeth Street Learning Center in Cudahy. This classroom has children from kindergarten through second grade, ages 5 through 8. By design, not all can read or even write every letter of the alphabet.

"I can see such a difference in the interaction between children," said teacher Monica Ibarra, who until a year ago taught a traditional kindergarten class. "There is less competition, more feeling of family. The children seem to care more about each other. I think when they are different ages, the classroom imitates more of their family life, where there are siblings and friends of all ages."

As a way to give students and teachers more flexibility, multi-age and multi-grade classrooms are fast becoming a cornerstone of instructional reform, education experts say.

The practice is particularly being embraced in the early years of elementary school, when children's developmental skills run a gamut of levels. Rather than being limited to kindergarten or first-grade materials, learners in a multi-age classroom can progress at their own speed.

And the highest achievers become little teachers to the others, allowing for sharpened academic skills and a blossoming of self-confidence.

Elizabeth Street Learning Center, one of nine national model schools for the New American Schools Development Corp., has transformed its traditional single-grade classrooms into bustling workshops.

The school serves 2,600 children, from pre-kindergarten to 10th grade. About half speak primarily Spanish.

Ibarra's kindergarten through second-grade class is a textbook example of how a multi-age classroom should look.

The room is divided into clusters of learning stations--a mini-library for reading, a writing table stocked with pencils and paper, a building-block and puzzle area, a computer table. Ibarra is currently teaching her children about farms and food and has brought in play kitchen appliances. Another corner is equipped with toy animals so children can build their own farm.

"In a setup like this, it's easier to do more things and help more children," she explained.

In many cases, the students help each other. In one section, 7-year-old Jasmine Enriquez presides over a puzzle-assembling session with two kindergarten boys who select an array of pieces for Jasmine to lock into place.

"The older children act as models for the younger ones," Ibarra said. "Unlike most teachers, I don't have to spend a lot of valuable time refereeing the kids. I think they are learning to solve their problems together, with the younger ones going to the older ones for guidance."

When it comes to writing, for instance, Ibarra groups children not by grade or age, but by ability. So an 8-year-old who has never attended school before can work with other "pre-writers" rather than be stuck in a second-grade classroom where he would be far behind.

The highest achievers, whether age 6 or 8, can receive the specialized attention they need to continue their progress. Ibarra will keep the same students for three years, allowing her to continually evaluate their achievement.

In practice, teachers say, keeping up with this new reform movement can be daunting.

In the upper grades, some teachers at Elizabeth are finding the multi-age concept difficult to implement. In a fourth- and fifth-grade combination class, for instance, teacher Kay Botts says it is a challenge to find ways to meet the demands of specific California curriculum requirements, especially in social studies and history.

Fourth-graders must learn about California history, and fifth-graders must be taught about Native Americans and the westward movement. Botts said she tries to find themes that can be applied to both topics, such as explorers in both California and the West. She is especially concerned that the higher achievers in her class are at times frustrated with the pace, and she finds it difficult to come up with extra activities for them.

"I don't know if this is going to work or not," Botts said. "I would hate to use these kids as an experiment and say later, 'Sorry kids, this didn't work and you missed out on a couple of years of education.' "

One grouping of fourth- and fifth-graders, however, gives high marks to their new classroom scene and said they have a newfound respect for their classmates.

"We get to know grown-up kids and we get used to being around little kids," said Daisey Macias, 10.

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