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Mixing It Up Over Combined-Grade Classes

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Dear Extra Credit:

I am the parent of two children attending Fairfax County public schools.

One of the issues I have not seen addressed in your column is split classes. This is the situation in which a school doesn't have enough students in a particular grade to qualify for a new teacher, but there are too many students to comfortably fit into one class.

A class ends up being created that contains children from two grade levels, and the teacher is expected to teach two sets of curricula.

My son is entering the fifth grade at a small and wonderful elementary school. He is facing a split class with either the sixth grade or the fourth grade. Nothing will be certain until just before school starts because of a request for a new teacher by the principal, and, of course, because of last-minute registrations. Two years ago, my son was part of a split class of second- and third-graders (he was in third grade). It was not a good year for his progress in many of the core subjects: math, reading, etc.

Communication from the teacher was not smooth because she had more than 25 students plus families to communicate with.

It was a difficult year for all involved. A family friend in the school has been in split classes in the first and third grades and is facing a split for fifth grade, as well.

When I tell friends and family about this concept of split classes, a common comment is made: "I didn't know Fairfax County had split classes." I didn't, either, until my son's third-grade experience.

For many students who, like my son, do not work well independently for long periods, I can't fathom how this can foster a strong learning environment for either grade involved in the split.

While our wonderful principal and our School Board representative, Jane Straus, continue to request a new teacher to alleviate this issue, and the parents write letters of concern, I am left looking at what the other options are for my son.

I guess my question is whether split classes are a viable option for educating our children in the 21st century.

Ann Mahoney

McLean

Back when there were only 48 stars on the flag, I was a fourth-grader in a 4-5 class and liked being with the big kids. Keep in mind I was only 9, and about as perceptive as a pineapple.

Parents these days have a different perspective. Many of them share your concerns, as do educators. In some ways, splitting the atom seems to be child's play compared with splitting an elementary school class.

Parents such as you who have had bad experiences, as well as those for whom the split class is new, often complain. Educators throughout the area tell me they create such classes very reluctantly and carefully choose the teachers and students to keep problems such as the ones you encountered to a minimum.

Fairfax County keeps precise statistics on this phenomenon, a sign it has had to answer many questions from parents unhappy with these arrangements.

The data show split classes are relatively rare. Only 77 classes, or 2.1 percent of all classes in kindergarten through sixth grade, were split in the 2006-07 school year in Fairfax County. Sixty-five of them affected only the youngest children. There were 26 K-first-grade classes, 33 first- and-second-grade classes, and six K-first grade-second-grade classes.

Last year, only three classes split in the way you face with your son: just two 4-5 classes and one 5-6 class in the entire county.

Jan Funk, principal of Halley Elementary School in Fairfax County, is experienced with what she and the county call combination classes. She assembles them with the kind of care that I wish the Redskins would use with their offense. She assigns teachers who "are highly qualified and have taught both grade levels, giving them a broad knowledge of both grade level curricula," she said. She looks for students with strong independent working skills and social maturity who "demonstrate positive behavior." If a parent doesn't want a child in the class, the child is not assigned to it.

Vicky Stultz, an instructional director for several elementary schools in Frederick County, said she has not had a split class in three years. When she had them, she said, "It required a lot of communication and hand-holding between the parents and the teacher initially, but as the year progressed, everything seemed to work out."

Kelly M. Hall, director of elementary instruction, administration and school improvement in St. Mary's County, said her schools will often assign more teachers to the overloaded grade rather than create a split class. If they do set up a combination class, she said, they look at student birthdays and "create a split class where the students are chronologically not more than one year apart in age, as they would be in a traditional straight-grade class."

Other districts say they don't have the problem. Sharon Ackerman, assistant superintendent for instruction in Loudoun County public schools, said she has had no split classes in several years since the School Board committed to small class sizes in elementary schools.

Officials in Calvert, Howard, Spotsylvania and Rappahannock counties said they have had no split classes at all recently.

Please send your questions, along with your name, e-mail or postal address and telephone number, to: Extra Credit, The Washington Post, 526 King St., Suite 515, Alexandria, Va. 22314. Or e-mailextracredit@washpost.com.

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