'Super Grades' on the Way to Vista School : Education: Traditional kindergarten-through-fifth grade classes will be combined into two 'super grades' in experiment.


The way Vista school officials envision it, each classroom would operate almost as a family--with older and younger students mixed together like brothers and sisters, and a teacher overseeing each brood.

In an unusual experiment, the first of its kind in North County, Beaumont Elementary School in August will start replacing part of its traditional kindergarten-through-fifth-grade system with two "super grades."

The plan to clump kindergarten, first- and second-graders into one group, and third-, fourth- and fifth-graders into another group is part of an international movement toward combining grades--sort of a 1990s version of the traditional one-room schoolhouse.

"The public school classroom is one of the few places where we really limit kids in terms of their interaction with people of a variety of ages," according to Beaumont Principal Eric Monce. "We're trying to make it more of a real-world experience, where different ages and different cultures can interact with each other."

Modeled after programs in Los Angeles, Tucson, Kentucky and Vancouver, the Beaumont plan is winning praise from local educators, although the program's unorthodoxy is causing confusion and anxiety among some Vista parents.

They worry that younger kids would be prematurely exposed to older children--with their foul language and emerging sexual identities--and that traditional report cards will be abandoned in favor of a portfolio of student work samples and teacher observations.

"I have a little girl who does not need to hear the language that fifth-grade boys use," said Mary Kelleher, mother of a third-grade son and a second-grade daughter. She also doesn't want her daughter around older girls undergoing "body changes."

As for having no report cards, Kelleher asked, "How will I know how well my child is really doing compared to students in other areas that are being graded?"

However, Vista teachers are eager to begin the super grades, expecting that, regardless of age, students will share their learning strengths with one another.

As teacher Kim Bess sees it, traditional single-age classes don't recognize that "children develop physically, emotionally and intellectually at different rates, unrelated to their chronological age."

Monce believes the new system is a breakthrough that will help the 15% to 20% of his pupils who are lagging behind by allowing them to work with others and learn at their own speed.

He's committed to trying something new, and he became sold on the super grade concept after some Vista teachers heard about it during an education conference.

"We currently have a portion of our students who don't succeed at the levels at which we think they're capable. . . . Apparently we're not doing something right," Monce said.

Under the new system, for example, a first-grader who excels at reading but has trouble at math can work with older students in English and younger ones in arithmetic, he said.

Although details of the plan are still being figured out, Monce and Bess offered a broad outline of how it will work:

* Each class will have about 29 students. Students will not change teachers until they're old enough either for the next super grade or junior high. That means the students will have the same teacher for three years.

* Lessons will be tailored individually, with students calling a lot of the shots. "Children learn and retain more if they have choice," Bess said. Instead of a standard lecture, slide show and test for a lesson on whales, for example, students might do their own research and present their findings in whatever manner they prefer--a report, a play, or maybe even devising a game board about whales.

* As for grades and report cards, scores on tests will simply list the percentage of correct answers, with no accompanying letter grade. Report cards will compare students against their past performance instead of against other students. The cards will probably include work samples and a written summary of what the child is able to do academically.

* Discipline is another factor, and Bess said the question most parents ask is, "Will my child be beat up by older children?" Her answer, based on watching similar programs in other school districts, is no. "They take care of each other like family. It's a big brother, little sister attitude."

The younger students also develop more maturity because they model themselves after the older children, Bess said.

The same phenomenon occurs academically, said Letha McWey, a Beaumont parent who traveled to Canada with several teachers--using money from a special grant--to observe multiple-age classrooms there.

The younger children learned faster by picking up things from their classmates, the same way younger children learn from older siblings in families, she said.

McWey said she was first skeptical about the idea of combining grades: "I wondered, will my 5-year-old get to shine in a classroom with 7- and 8-year-olds?"

In Canada, she said, "all the kids have the opportunity to shine . . . . The competitiveness we have here didn't seem to exist."

But some other parents of Beaumont students remain "real worried, real apprehensive and really confused," McWey said. Some think the school is "trying to put something over on them."

Parents of students in honors classes are a likely source of objection, fearing the program might hold back gifted children by lumping them with younger and slower youngsters.

Parent Linda O'Neill said, "If it truly allows children to learn at their own pace . . . I'd be for it." But she frets that brighter students will end up regularly tutoring others, thus slowing their own advancement.

But McWey and others predict that doubts will be erased when the program is explained to parents in a series of informational meetings tentatively scheduled to begin in June and July.

Bess argued that students "learn better if they help someone else learn it," but she agreed that tutoring on a regular basis wouldn't be a good idea.

Sandy Williams, director of planning and assessment at the county Office of Education, called Beaumont's plan innovative and said it reflects the latest educational research, which suggests children learn better in multiple-age classrooms.

Even so, money, noise and teacher resistance pose potential hurdles for Beaumont's plan.

The program will probably begin on a limited basis in August, Monce said, but the speed with which it spreads to the rest of the school hinges on whether officials can win a $150,000 grant and use state and federal funds to hire part-time teachers and write new lesson plans.

Once the program is up and running, it costs a little more than the current system, but the difference can be covered by juggling some spending priorities, Monce said.

Some teachers might also have qualms about the switch, a problem that has cropped up in other cities with combined grade systems. The inaugural group of faculty members at Beaumont is enthusiastic, and the rest generally support the idea, Bess said. But there are drawbacks.

One is peace of mind. Classes at schools with combined grades have a "noise level much higher than what we're accustomed to, although that doesn't mean the children aren't learning," Bess said.

The program also entails more planning and time from teachers, which might not be welcome in some quarters, Monce conceded. But he said the burden could be lightened by having teachers work in teams and by hiring some part-time instructors.

Bess hopes that, as time passes, all teachers at Beaumont will become enthralled by the program. But she acknowledges a difficult road ahead. "It's going to be hammered out as it goes . . . . We're excited, and challenged--and nervous."

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