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Looping Catches On

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Atop the dark green cabinets in Pat Sanford's classroom sit large, rectangular boxes labeled "sea life," "farms," and "dinosaurs." But the 2nd grade teacher at the Manatee Education Center in Florida's Collier County hardly ever pulls them down to hunt for reliable old lessons that were a hit with last year's class.

That's because last year's class is also this year's class--an arrangement that has forced Sanford to look continually for fresh and creative ideas and materials. And she's got plenty of company. All of the teachers at Manatee, a prekindergarten through 8th grade school with a significant minority, low-income student population, stay with their students for more than one year--an educational practice called "looping."

The technique--also known as "teacher-student progression" and "multiyear grouping"--is gaining in popularity. Advocates say it helps teachers and students forge stronger relationships and cuts down on the annual back-to-school review. Some school administrators say it reduces discipline problems and increases attendance for both students and teachers.

What's not yet clear is whether it boosts student achievement. But even teachers who have been around long enough to see other reforms come and go think looping is one of the more common-sense approaches to hit schools in years. "A lot of people my age are not open to change," says Sanford, who started teaching in 1976. "But looping has really helped me see what can happen in education."

No one really knows how many schools nationwide use looping. The National Alliance of Multiage Educators, a Peterborough, New Hampshire-based organization that includes looping teachers, has close to 1,500 members, and the group's conference last year drew some 3,000 participants. "Looping is about time, giving kids extra time," says Jim Grant, an education consultant and founder of the alliance.

For many teachers, looping also increases job satisfaction because they get to stay with children longer and see them progress and learn concepts that were initially beyond their grasp. "That was the greatest joy--to get to see it click," says Manatee teacher Alice James of a youngster in her class who couldn't read sight words until months after his classmates.

Though most commonly used in Germany, looping is not new in this country. Most looping occurs in the early grades. It often begins in a school with a supportive administration and a couple of teachers who decide they want to give it a try.

Organizing an entire school around the concept is less common, but that's what the 1,600-student Manatee Education Center has done. Looping here begins in 1st grade. Most teachers stay with their students for two years, though there have been a few three-year loops. The practice, says principal Santo Pino, has created "smallness out of bigness."

In Attleboro, Massachusetts, about 30 miles southeast of Boston, teachers loop in grades 1 through 6 in each of the district's five elementary schools. The practice affects about 4,400 students. "We decided that this would be good for all of them," assistant superintendent Ted Thibodeau says.

When the district phased in the approach about seven years ago, a few teachers left. Their greatest concern, district officials say, was undertaking a second curriculum, a tough change for those who had taught the same grade for years.

Now, most teachers support the idea. "We would hate to see it go back to the way it was," says Evelyn Grantham, president of the Attleboro Education Association.

Most educators who loop believe it helps kids socially, but they aren't as sure about its academic benefits. Thibodeau's more convinced. He points to state testing data showing that Attleboro's schools score above both the state average and the average for schools in their demographic group.

Some observers argue that Attleboro has taken looping too far, that it should be an option but not a requirement. "I don't think it should be a mandate," says Lynn Babcock, principal of Grant Elementary School in Livonia, Michigan, where only a few teachers loop. "It should be a choice for the teacher and a choice for the parent."

So far, research on the effectiveness of looping is scant. One of the few studies was conducted last year by Paul George, a respected researcher and middle school expert at the University of Florida in Gainesville. George surveyed parents, teachers, and students from 70 middle schools across the country in which teams of students and teachers stayed together for 6th, 7th, and 8th grades.

Teachers were, by far, the most positive about looping, saying it improved student behavior, helped them build on students' strengths, and improved academic performance for lower-achieving students. Kids said they enjoyed staying with their peers for more than a year. They also reported that looping made them less anxious about starting school in the fall.

Although parents were generally positive, some said their children had suffered by having a poor teacher for two years. What concerned them the most was that their child could get stuck for a long time with a teacher the youngster didn't get along with.

Colleen Jost, who has two children in the Attleboro schools, had such an experience with her daughter when she was in the 1st and 2nd grades. "The teacher didn't want to be doing this," Jost says. "We should have intervened."

Most looping advocates agree that there should be alternatives available to parents and students who don't want the same teacher for two years. And teachers say the system should be flexible enough to split up troublemaking students.

In Florida's Collier County, district officials are watching Manatee's looping experiment with great interest. So far, the school has managed to stay off of the state's "critically low-performing" list--something many schools with Manatee's demographics haven't been able to do. Principal Pino suggests looping is just one reason. He points to Manatee's use of block scheduling and a new effort to blend career awareness into the curriculum as other key ingredients.

Still, both Pino and his colleagues hope the future of looping at Manatee doesn't hinge solely on improved student performance. "I am convinced that this is the only way education should be moving," Pino says. "Schools have got to have a more structured and secure environment for kids."

--Linda Jacobson

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