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Posted August 17, 2009

Catholic school's multiage format
could be national model

By Mary Chalupsky
Catholic News Service

MILFORD, Conn. (CNS) -- What's old is new again at St. Ann's School in Milford. That's because the school now uses multiage classrooms -- reminiscent of one-room schools -- combining students of mixed ages who spend two years with the same teacher.

After introducing the new format only a year ago, faculty and parents say that performance results are already beyond expectations.

"It's worked out incredibly well," principal Carol Schweitzer told The Catholic Transcript, Hartford's archdiocesan newspaper.

She said the new classroom format enables teachers to reach each student's abilities. And for Schweitzer the proof of its effectiveness is in national test scores ranking many of the students above their grade level. Some scored in the 99th percentile in science and math.

Father Brian Shaw, pastor of St. Ann Parish, was equally pleased with test results.

The new format is based on the premise that children learn according to their own strengths and developmental abilities, not according to age. It enables children to learn from each other, building self-esteem and confidence while learning at their own pace.

Students progress in subject areas within the classroom according to their ability. If they can work at the higher levels, they move ahead in groups. But if they need more review, they remain at their current level for remedial study until they're ready to move ahead.

The priest, who worked with archdiocesan school officials to design the school program last year when St. Ann enrollment fell to 97 students, called the approach "very efficient and streamlined" and as "close as you can get to one-on-one tutoring."

Parents also are happy with it.

"It's been very beneficial to my kids," said Greg Vetter, the father of three children. "There's a lot of interaction with the teacher to strengthen their skills. It's more flexible and they can offer extended learning periods when it's needed."

He also said this new way of teaching prevents the lag time at the beginning of each school year when teachers are trying to determine what their students know.

"With this model, the teachers already know their students when classes start and can begin teaching where they left off. That's huge," he said. "You save time, advance students faster and they move forward with more confidence."

This fall, St. Ann's will continue to offer pre-kindergarten and kindergarten classes. But students ages 6 to 8 are grouped as "primary" students, ages 8 to 10 are "upper primary," ages 10 to 12 are "intermediate" and ages 12 to 14 are "upper intermediate." Grade levels are not used.

Students in each group are assigned a homeroom, and in each homeroom the students are divided based on skill level in math, science, language arts, history, geography and reading.

"It's fun because you get to interact with different kids in your class," said Stephen Toth, age 12. "Learning was the same, but I like it better because we meet with different groups, there's more variety, and you get to help the younger kids."

Mary Ann Lonergan, age 13, agreed that socialization is a big plus. "I got to meet a bigger group of friends, and I got to know them better. And I already know who my teacher is for next year, so there's no surprise or anxiety. I'm already prepared."

Five other schools in the Hartford Archdiocese plan to implement the multiage model for the 2009-10 school year, said Maria Maynard, assistant superintendent of schools in the Hartford Archdiocese.

St. Ann teachers planned to visit a multiage program at a New York public school during the summer. The popular public school has a waiting list to get in, and parents intentionally move into the neighborhood just to be eligible for the school.

Father Shaw is convinced this new way of teaching is the way of the future.

"We're building Catholics for the 21st century," he said. "The old industrial model for education is passe.

"I'd never go back after I saw this work out as well as it has this year," he added.

Christine Villani, an elementary education professor at Southern Connecticut State University in New Haven, said this teaching approach is more developmentally appropriate than standard models.

"Children develop at different paces and rates; and to box children into grades sort of goes against most child development theories," she said.