A Modern Take on the One-Room Classroom

Jun 13, 2017

With school out for summer, two Albemarle County elementary schools are beginning renovations to convert regular classrooms to multi-age classrooms. That's a classroom where kids of different ages and grades work together. It's part of a nationwide trend, but how well does it actually work? Emily Richardson-Lorente visited a multi-age class to find out.

When it comes to their kids' schools, lots of parents worry about class size. But here at Agnor Hurt Elementary in Charlottesville, the most popular class may just be the biggest. 110 kids, 6 teachers, in a single, light-filled room that mixes kindergarten through 5th grade.

IAN SCOTT: It can be crazy, it can be fun, it can be calm, it can be anything.

That's 5th grader Ian Scott. He's finishing his 2nd year in Agnor Hurt's multi-age classroom.

IAN SCOTT: I really like that you get a lot of freedom, it's... the teachers are all nice, they set their standards, and there's a lot of room to roam around and kind of do what you need to do.

The students here are actually separated into 3 multi-age sections or "pods," each with its own pair of teachers. And though each pod is centered in a different corner of this big, colorful room, all of the kids share a common area with rolling tables and a kitchenette.

MICHAEL THORNTON: There are no walls. It's a free flowing space, all the furniture can move.

That's Michael Thornton.

ANDREW CRAFT: Yeah, I don't think you'll see the furniture in the same place two days in a row ever.

And that's Drew Craft.

MICHAEL THORNTON: There's definitely a level of chaos that you have to be comfortable with.

Together, they team-teach the oldest pod of 3rd, 4th and 5th graders, many of whom will be with them for a full three years.

MICHAEL THORNTON: Obviously, there's a curriculum that we're following, in fact, there's 3 curriculums that we're following, so we have to be well planned in that sense, to make sure that everything's being taught.

In multi-age classes like this one, teachers will sometimes pull all the kids together for group discussion. But much of the work is project based, so students often work in small groups at their own pace.

MICHAEL THORNTON: You know, sometimes obviously we have to kind of step in to make sure you know that everyone's as focused as they should be. But that's also part of what we work on is helping kids understand how to manage their time and become independent learners.

Not just learners, but teachers as well. Education experts like Tish Jennings, an Associate Professor of Education at the University of Virginia, say that kid-to-kid teaching is one of the big benefits of multi-age classrooms.

TISH JENNINGS: Children learn a lot by helping younger children. Showing them how to do something, they learn to embody it even deeper.

And according to fifth grader Maria Jose, teaching younger kids feels pretty good too.

MARIA JOSE: Well, it feels nice because we knew how it was difficult before and we can help them with more things like multiplication, stuff like that.

EMILY: Is there any downside to working with younger kids?

MARIA JOSE: Ummm, not really. Just some of the boys are troublemakers.

There's obviously a wide range of maturity levels in a room with multiple grades, but Tish Jennings says that can actually help with social and emotional development.

TISH JENNINGS: Children, especially younger children, vary a lot in their developmental stages and so finding a peer academically or finding a peer socially and emotionally might mean looking at a student who's a little younger or a little older.

And the younger kids here, like 3rd grader Evan Corsall, seem to love this.

EVAN CORSALL: Since I'm one of the younger people, I get to learn 4th and 5th grade stuff, which is really cool.

EMILY: Do you think you'll be bored in 4th and 5th grade if you've already learned everything once?

EVAN CORSALL: No, compared to what I see the 5th graders doing now, I think it's going to be really fun.

ANDREW CRAFT: Show your neighbor your problem, make sure it checks out.

EMILY: How do you guys know this is working?

ANDREW CRAFT: First and foremost, we always hear from parents that the kids are ready to go to school every day, they want to go to school.

MICHAEL THORNTON: They'll be sick, and they'll -- we'll get a message from the parents saying that they want to come to school. I mean that's a win.

EMILY: But devil's advocate: doesn't necessarily mean they're learning.

MICHAEL THORNTON: They work really hard.

ANDREW CRAFT: It's not all sunshine here, they do have to do work.

And so far, standardized test scores seem to support the idea that multi-age is working at Agnor Hurt. Last year, English and math SOL scores improved school-wide by 7% and 8% respectively. Fifth grade science and social studies SOL scores increased even more, by 15% and 22%. And that's at the same time that division-wide social studies scores fell 2%.

MICHAEL THORNTON: This is a prefix.

Of course, it's too early to tell whether these improved scores are a pattern or a fluke, and whether multi-age is the cause or just a coincidence. But school Principal Michele Castner is almost evangelical in her enthusiasm for the multiage concept.

MICHELE CASTNER: I think we've created the ideal environment for children to thrive and love learning. That's our goal.

Castner has been a big proponent of adding multi-age classrooms, in part because she had taught in one herself, and knew what to expect.

MICHELE CASTNER: In simple words: joy. That's what we see, is a joy for learning. And that's why I'd want to see it in every school.

Agnor Hurt will be adding another multi-age classroom this summer. And they're not the only school in the county doing so. In fact, less than a mile down the road, Woodbrook Elementary is beginning school-wide renovations converting virtually all of its classrooms to multi-age over the next 2 years. It's part of a small but growing wave of schools nationwide, from San Diego to New Hampshire, that are taking the plunge into multi-age.

For WMRA News, I'm Emily Richardson-Lorente.