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Paynesville Press - April 16, 2003

Elementary school to offer multi-age classroom

By Michael Jacobson

Paynesville Area Elementary School will try a multi-age classroom to solve a class size dilemma in the third grade next year.

With the school district trying to trim its budget while increasing class sizes as little as possible, the school board approved implementing one multi-age classroom of second and third graders.

PAES class size The school board had already agreed not to cut any staff in the elementary school for the 2003-04 school year, but this left only three sections for third grade, with a projected 27 students per class.

At a previous board meeting, elementary staff had told the board that they thought the optimum arrangement for small class sizes was to have four sections in K-3, but adding a teacher in third grade means an estimated $40,000 budget addition for 2003-04.

Adding just a half-time teacher in order to divide the third grade into four sections for reading, math, and spelling next year (with 20 or 21 students per class) would cost the district $20,000 and still leave class sizes of 27 for subjects like music, physical education, library, social studies, science, art, and language arts.

Administrators proposed offering having a multi-age classroom as another solution to this problem, and the board chose to offer one class of second and third graders. This means that PAES will have three second grade classes, three third grade classes, and one multi-age class of nine second graders and 11 third graders.

Class sizes in the three second grade classes will be 22 or 23 students. Class sizes in the three third grade classes will be 23. And the class size of the multi-age class will be 20.

Going to a multi-age classroom should not be viewed as a bandaid, said elementary principal Todd Burlingame, but as a long-term option for students and parents. "If they don't like a traditional setting, a multi-age classroom gives them another option," said Burlingame, who noted that other school districts have been offering multi-age classrooms for several years, including Sauk Centre for the past 12 years.

Elementary teacher Barb Werlinger told the board that very few elementary teachers would support having a multi-age classroom next year, that the board should not make educational decisions based on the budget, and that $40,000 may be needed to cover staff development and to rewrite the curriculum during the summer.

To this, board member Deb Glenz said the district could hire someone with experience with a multi-age classroom "if the teachers we have can't or won't do it."

Board member Tami Stanger also questioned the amount needed to start a multi-age classroom, saying the district only needed to recreate what other districts are already doing, not start from scratch. The kindergarten staff, she noted, adjusted to an all-day, everyday program without such sums for staff development and curriculum revision.

The board considered having the administration figure a cost estimate for implementing a multi-age classroom of second and third graders but then decided that they had better commit to doing it and give the administration and staff as much time as possible to prepare for the switch.

"If you buy into the concept that it's something we should pursue," said board chairman Pat Flanders, "then let's bite the bullet and do it."

Board member Mark Dingmann agreed that now is the time to make the switch, with the district soon to hire new elementary teachers.

"I don't see why we can't do this," said board member Allen Schmidt. "Other schools are (already) doing this."

Burlingame told the board that he wanted to have all his ducks in a row to implement a multi-age classroom successfully. "If we do this, I want to do it right," he said.

"The more opportunity we have to prepare, the more chance we have for success," added superintendent Howard Caldwell. "If it's approved tonight, we're going to move forward with it tomorrow."

The board approved offering a multi-age classroom of second and third graders unanimously. Not before noting, however, that if they do not get things in place, the board could opt to hire another teacher as late as next August and have four traditional sections of second and third graders next year.

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