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Published in Print: August 17, 2001, as In The Loop

In The Loop

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A popular method lets teachers stick with a class for a few years before circling back to a new group.

Kim Witeck and others who have tried "looping" say it builds bonds and cuts down on back-to-school review. —David Kidd

On a fine morning in early May, the students in Kim Witeck’s 5th grade class at Braddock Elementary School are working intently on their end-of-the-year science projects. One child stares at a computer screen, oblivious to the gaggle of boys sprawled on the floor behind him. Other kids sit four and five to a table with crayons, pencils, pens, scissors, and rulers flowing around them like a river in flood stage. Witeck, an energetic presence with lively brown eyes, moves around the room offering suggestions and encouragement.

All the while, a song with a heavy bass line thumps from a boombox. The kids seem oblivious to the tune, but when it reaches a culminating moment, all activity stops. The 5th graders raise their heads and belt out two words in unison: "King Tut." Pause. "King Tut." No, this isn’t Steve Martin’s silly Saturday Night Live bit; it’s a piece from a musical the kids will perform as they study Egypt. Witeck has been letting her students mix rehearsal time with scientific endeavor.

This 5th grade version of multi-tasking is a reflection of Witeck’s relationship with her students. She knows exactly what they’re capable of because she’s been teaching them for the past two years. Braddock, a K-5 school in Annandale, Virginia, is engaged in an increasingly popular strategy known as "looping," which allows students and their teacher to move together from one grade to the next.

Most schools employing the practice pair up adults and kids for two or three years, with the teacher eventually looping back to start over with a new group. In some schools, the match lasts longer. Either way, the idea is that students benefit from the stability and comfort of a long-term relationship with their teacher. And, after the first year, they don’t have to spend a month or more in review in the fall.

"Every school in America is [looping] or thinking about doing it," says Jim Grant, an educational consultant who’s written books on the subject and conducts seminars across the country. His associate, Char Fersten, says that, though no one has tracked the frequency of the method’s use, she’s watched looping rise in popularity in the past five to six years. Monitoring its growth is difficult, she notes, because often just a teacher or two in each school will loop. But in some places—such as Naples, Florida, and Attleboro, Massachusetts—all K-8 classes in a district employ the approach.

"Teachers like it. Parents like it. Kids like it," Braddock’s principal, Jan Zschoche, says, repeating the triumvirate of positives that arise repeatedly in discussions about looping. Principals also like looping because it tends to boost attendance and decrease disciplinary problems.

But teachers are the strategy’s biggest fans. Witeck says she volunteered to loop for "selfish reasons. I loved my class and wanted to continue with them." The 30-year-old also appreciates the way her group "hit the ground running" after its first year together. In fact, most of those who loop are particularly happy during the fall season, when students in other classes have to spend time adjusting to each other, a new teacher, and an unfamiliar set of rules. With looping, as Zschoche puts it, "there is no first day of school."

The method does have drawbacks, though, and no research has yet proved that it raises academic performance. The evidence that looping works, therefore, is strictly anecdotal. But many educators taking part in the process argue, convincingly, that the benefits of looping—a stronger bond between teacher and student, for example—far outweigh the potential flaws.

When Daniel Burke, who’d participated in a seminar on looping, became superintendent of the Antioch, Illinois, school system in 1994, one of his first orders of business was to persuade a few "courageous teachers" to give the method a try. Looping is actually not new; it dates back to the one- room schoolhouse. But some Antioch educators were cautious about trying something they’d never done. Eventually, the experiment was such a success that, by the time Burke left the district two years ago to head Oxford, Connecticut’s schools, nearly 75 percent of his K-8 instructors had taken up looping.

One of Burke’s first volunteers was Sue Stevens, then a 4th grade teacher at W.C. Petty Elementary. After the first school year, she spent most of her summer preparing a 5th grade curriculum, which was new to her. The extra effort was worthwhile, however, because staying with the same class gave her kids "social and emotional confidence," she says. And over a two-year period, as she watched her students mature, she was able to tailor particularly difficult lessons to her class. "If they weren’t ready in 4th grade," she says, "I hit them again in 5th."

At first, some W.C. Petty parents were skeptical. They worried that their children would get stuck, for two or three years, with teachers they didn’t like. But as is the case elsewhere, parents could always opt out of a looping class after the first year. The superintendent says the opposite actually happened: As word spread about the program’s benefits, more and more parents requested putting their kids into looping classes. They, too, appreciated having more than eight months to get to know a teacher.

Kris Scheidt, whose three kids looped at W.C. Petty, was pleased with the practice. "It focuses more on the emotional aspect [of education]," she says. "Testing has taken too much of a front seat." In fact, some teachers believe looping bolsters test preparation. When high-stakes tests induce anxiety, a stable class environment brings calm, they argue. And teachers who know their kids inside out are better equipped to instill confidence in future test-takers.

For many of the same reasons, schools that need an extra boost may also benefit from looping. Braddock Elementary, for example, is a "reduced-ratio" campus, meaning it houses many small classes due to a large number of special-needs students. A sign posted outside the administration building spells out the most obvious of needs: The word "office" is translated into a fistful of languages, including Spanish, Thai, Korean, and Farsi. Looping is particularly beneficial for students who speak English as a second language and for those with learning disabilities, according to Yvette Zgonc, a Melbourne, Florida-based educational consultant who specializes in attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and classroom discipline.

"With looping, a bonding and rapport takes place that is necessary for learning to take place," says Zgonc. In creating a positive environment, she says, "looping is one of the best things that has come along the pike." She admits, however, that looping is not for everyone.

When a teacher and a kid fail to click, for instance, or when a teacher’s area of weakness mirrors a child’s, looping is a dead end. And every teacher has come across a class that’s simply a bad mix of kids—a situation that shouldn’t last more than a year.

In fact, looping can be a big problem for teachers who are expert disciplinarians; principals sometimes overload their classrooms with needy kids. Jim Grant calls one year with such a class "survivable." Two years? "Excruciating." And no teacher wants to deal with an overbearing parent for two years either.

In most schools, Grant says, looping problems are easily solved because there’s always the option of transferring students to other classrooms. But in Attleboro, Massachusetts, where all K-8 classes have been looping for 10 years, only a handful of kids, out of the 500 in each grade, switch teachers each year, according to assistant superintendent June Gilch.

The great unknown is whether looping has a positive effect on academic achievement. Burke, the former Antioch, Illinois, superintendent, says his students "did at least as well and possibly better" on tests than kids in traditional classes. Paul George, a professor at the University of Florida, surveyed looping in 70 middle schools in 1996 and found that 90 percent of the participating teachers and 69 percent of students were positive about the experience. But George is one of only a few experts who’ve studied the phenomenon, and no one has yet launched an extensive national study of the connection between looping and test scores.

Meanwhile, many students give looping high marks. Karen Meek, an 11- year-old 5th grader at Braddock Elementary, for example, dips her head and smiles bashfully when asked about her two-year experience with Kim Witeck. "It’s nice having the same teacher," she says, staring at her shoe tops. "You get used to all the ways she does things."

Her classmate Chris Holt is not nearly so shy. The 10-year-old looks like a Norman Rockwell boy- next-door and talks like a born politician. "I’ve had some good teachers," he says, obviously not wanting to slight anyone. "But I’ve gotten to know Mrs. Witeck. These have been the best two years of school I ever had."

"We really are a family," says Witeck, managing not to sound saccharine. Then her attention is diverted by clandestine giggling, and she scans the room for the source. Her disciplining eyes come to rest on students at a table on the far side of the room. They are ducking their heads as though that will help them escape detection.

"Your table is a little loud," Witeck admonishes, and the decibel level slowly ebbs. But only temporarily, for that musical moment is about to come around again: "King Tut. King Tut."

Vol. 13, Issue 1, Pages 17-19

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