Learning together: Educators explore multi-age classrooms



In her 30th year of teaching at Medora Elementary School, Luanne McCammon was presented with a challenge.

A decline in enrollment and a general fund budget deficit forced the school corporation to make some changes.

One was combining two grades in one classroom.

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Having spent most of her years teaching first grade, McCammon was tasked with also having second-graders in her classroom this school year.

That resulted in what’s known as a multi-age classroom, where students of different ages and abilities learn together in one classroom. She has five first-graders and 18 second-graders in her class.

Fortunately, she was given a full-time aide to help in the classroom, so it didn’t take long for everything to run smoothly.

“This has been a rewarding year,” McCammon said. “I have grown as a teacher, and I have seen only positive results with the students.”

Other elementary teachers soon may be leaning on McCammon for advice, as Superintendent Roger Bane and Principal Austin Absher have proposed converting all of the elementary to multi-age classrooms in the 2017-18 school year.

The corporation’s general fund budget relies heavily on enrollment, or average daily membership. Annual average daily membership counts are in September and February.

Medora currently receives $6,358.15 per student in tuition support, and that money covers a six-month period.

Based on an ADM of 192 in September and other revenue for the general fund, Bane estimates a deficit of $209,319 for 2017. The ADM has steadily decreased since September 2014 when 239½ students were enrolled at Medora. At that time, kindergarten students were counted as half.

By law, a school corporation is not allowed to be in a deficit financing position, Bane said.

To create some budget savings, he has proposed three changes — switching to multi-age elementary classes, eliminating an aide position and adjusting the employee insurance contribution. Altogether, that would save about $172,235.

“That is still off a little bit (from the deficit total), but I’m hopeful this legislative session, the state will come up with a few more dollars to cover the $37,000 we’re short,” Bane said during a recent parent/community meeting at the school that drew more than 60 people.

The corporation also has seen a decrease in its general fund cash balance. It was $431,776.04 at the end of 2015, and Bane estimates that to be around $175,000 at the end of 2018.

“If we get more students, as people retire and those type of things, hopefully, that estimated cash balance in ’18 will go up,” he said. “We just have to wait and see. We’re at the mercy of the state right now as far as new money that we’re going to actually get.”

Bane’s proposed changes will be up for a vote by the board of trustees during its next regular monthly meeting at 6 p.m. Monday in the school library.

If approved, there would be four multi-age classrooms next school year, each with a general education teacher and a full-time aide. The classrooms would consist of preschool and kindergarten, first and second grades, third and fourth grades and fifth and sixth grades.

The number of teachers would drop from seven to four. Bane said one teacher is retiring and another one is resigning, but a decision has not been made on the third teacher.

In her research, Absher said she found multi-age classrooms to work well because they reflect the natural organization of how people exist in society. In everyday activities, people of different ages interact and work together.

“Our students (would) have the opportunity to exchange ideas, to learn roles and responsibilities from one another as well as develop leadership skills within the classroom,” she said.

In multi-age classrooms, the teacher is the facilitator of learning.

McCammon said her language arts curriculum can be taught with the whole group with minor adjustments to followup activities, but math is taught separately.

The day starts with group grammar and writing instruction with opportunities for students to work on activities with a partner.

They then break into Daily Five, where students rotate between working with partners or individually and doing small-group reading instruction with McCammon. Shawn Murphin, the classroom aide, helps keep students on task with activities as McCammon works with a group.

“They have book baskets with books at their individual reading levels,” McCammon said. “They can choose from five activities each morning — read to self, read with someone, listen to reading on the computer, work on words (vocabulary and spelling) and writing.”

The afternoon is devoted to math. Murphin works with the first-graders at learning stations or games while McCammon teaches the second-grade lesson. McCammon then works with the first-graders while the second-graders do reinforcement activities with Murphin.

“While each grade level is taught their specific standards, one benefit of the multi-age classroom has been the exposure of the second-grade standards for the first-graders,” McCammon said. “They are introduced to a greater number of word wall words, sight words and grammar skills, which promotes reading and writing.”

Absher said a multi-age classroom is good because students take more active roles in their education, it’s developmentally appropriate, and there is continuous learning.

“Students, just because they are all 7-years-old does not mean necessarily that they all have the exact same strengths or they have the exact same weaknesses or the same interests,” she said. “This kind of classroom kind of encourages a more inclusive environment, and it also promotes an integrated curriculum.”

Absher said the learner-centered aspect is the most important benefit.

“It is all about every single individual student,” she said. “It’s about the teacher not teaching to just the group as a whole but really looking to see the needs of each individual student.”

It also encourages peer support because older students will help younger ones and vice versa. That allows them to develop leadership skills and grow as students.

“Second-graders enjoy opportunities to assist the first-graders, and the first-graders like to be partnered with the older students for certain activities,” McCammon said. “I believe my second-graders have grown and matured as a result of this experience.”

Absher and McCammon both said a student having a teacher for two years is a big benefit for them and their parents, too.

“I am better able to identify and address their needs as well as their strengths. I have a better opportunity to establish supportive relationships with students and parents,” McCammon said.

“The students in multi-age classrooms learn to take some initiative within their education, they are more comfortable, and they are more confident because they have been in this environment a little bit longer,” Absher said.

“They become very comfortable in that learning environment, and they become very comfortable with their peers within the classroom, which ultimately leads to that student having that many more opportunities to succeed,” she said.

Jessica Wischmeier, the guidance counselor at Medora, said St. John’s Sauers Lutheran School has multi-age classrooms, while Absher said Fairview Elementary School in Bloomington is structured that way.

Absher said she has been in contact with an elementary principal who decided to switch to multi-age classrooms because of the positive effect on kids, not based on economic reasons. That woman will be working with the Medora elementary teachers if the school board approves the multi-age classrooms.

“As far as support and resources, we’ve got some good people on board to help guide this in the right direction,” Absher said.

Bridget Disque, the kindergarten teacher at Medora, said she already has multiple activities going on at the same time while working in small groups in her classroom, and students are able to learn and grow.

She said she expects that to help if the school transitions to multi-age classrooms.

“The kids aren’t going to be thrown off by having different activities going on at the same time because they already do that now,” she said. “Classrooms are very different than they were even when I was in school, and I’ve only been out 20 years. They are different. They don’t look the same.”

Bonnie Hunsucker, a custodian at the school, told those attending the recent meeting to look at everything with a positive attitude and give the proposed changes a try to see how they work.

Absher encouraged people to visit the school’s website and Facebook pages for information about multi-age classrooms.

She said it will take everyone working together, from students to staff members to administrators to parents.

“I think that’s how we’re going to be successful,” she said. “That’s how this is going to work and benefit our kids.”

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In researching multi-age classrooms, Medora Principal Austin Absher found several benefits for students and parents.

For students

  • Learner-centered
  • Positive, nurturing environment
  • Peer support and mentoring
  • Opportunities for leadership
  • Individual pace for learning
  • Small group skill instruction
  • Longer time with teacher
  • Increased self-esteem and confidence

For parents

  • Stronger relationship with teacher
  • Child is given appropriate support/challenge depending on his or her individual achievement level
  • Child learns to be pro-social, independent and responsible
  • Child learns to self-initiate

For information about multi-age classrooms, visit medora.k12.in.us/parents/parent_outreach; search for “Medora Community Schools Parent Outreach” on Facebook; or email Absher at [email protected].

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What: Medora Community School Corp. board of trustees meeting

When: 6 p.m. Monday

Where: School library at 82 S. George St., Medora

Who: Open to the public and press


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