‘Living Laboratories’ Let Pupils Develop at Their Own Pace

By Deborah L. Cohen — December 06, 1989 9 min read

On the surface, the Lake George (N.Y.) Elementary School and the Walter F. White Elementary School in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn are a study in contrasts.

One is set in a striking one-level building on a wooded road in a quiet resort town. Its pupils are predominantly white and middle class. The other is housed in a three-level structure bordered by factories and housing projects on a stark urban street. Most of its pupils are low-income blacks and Hispanics.

Inside, however, the schools share a common philosophy that officials say has reaped promising results.

Their operative principle is that children’s development does not always match their grade level--and that they learn best when allowed to develop at their own pace.

While neither school has spurned standard grades completely, both cluster children by age groups and allow movement between levels for pupils ready to advance or needing more time in a given subject.

And both try to individualize learning, so that a child entering a new age group can proceed from where he or she left off in the last level.

The Lake George school has been experimenting with the “continuous progress” model since its inception 20 years ago; the Walter F. White school, also known as Public School 41, is in its third year of a pilot program using flexible groupings in grades K-3.

Because there are few prototypes, each school has forged its own approach and continues to refine it.

“We created from our own people what we thought was best for kids,” said Robert J. Ross, principal of the Lake George school. Gary Wexler, assistant principal of P.S. 41, said, “We’re like a living laboratory.”

The Lake George Elementary School, a K-6 school with 600 students, was designed for multi-age grouping, with expansive rooms containing several teaching stations sur4rounding a common area. Initially, it ran a continuous-progress program only for K-4 pupils. But Mr. Ross, who had headed two similar schools in New Hampshire, decided in consultation with faculty members to extend the model through 6th grade.

At first, they tried dividing the school into two teams, separating pupils who needed more structure from more independent learners.

But that approach was scrapped a few years later, Mr. Ross said, as it became apparent that the structured team “was becoming more and more populated with boys” and problem pupils who then had little opportunity to emulate more independent peers.

The school still uses a rating system to assess learning styles, but groups pupils heterogeneously.

First to 6th graders are divided into three “clusters” occupying separate rooms identified by colors. Within the clusters, 1st- and 2nd-, 3rd- and 4th-, and 5th- and 6th-level students occupy teaching stations led by teams of two or three teachers.

Team leaders, school specialists, and the principal form a cabinet that shares in school governance.

The teachers for different age levels maintain contact on pupils’ progress and plan instruction around common themes or joint projects.

Because the school allows movement among the age levels for children ready to accelerate or needing more time on a concept, about 6 percent of its pupils join older or younger groupings for some subjects, Mr. Ross said. A small number may remain in a grouping for more than two years, but others have moved into junior-high work by 6th grade.

The local junior high school has worked with the elementary school to accommodate pupils of varying ability levels, Mr. Ross said. Faculty members sometimes keep a child in an accelerated program rather than send him to junior high early, he noted, or promote a child of junior-high age they feel would not benefit from retention in elementary school.

To foster a climate in which “youngsters are not threatened by comparison,” Mr. Ross said, the school has no “pecking order that awards kids responsibility because of age; there is no graduation and no special privileges by age.”

The Lake George program runs counter to ungraded primary models promoted by some national experts in that its kindergarten is separate. It also advises some parents, on the basis of readiness assessments conducted in consultation with parents, teachers, and counselors, to keep children in half-day nursery schools for an extra year before enrolling them in the full-day kindergarten.

The school tried a combined K-1 class several years ago, Mr. Ross said, but the wide range of developmental levels “didn’t lend itself to the teaming process.” Teachers note, however, that the program is “developmentally appropriate” and allows kindergartners to work with older pupils.

Sandra Feldman, president of the United Federation of Teachers in New York City, began promoting “ungraded primary units” after discussions with teachers convinced her many pupils were entering or moving through the early grades unprepared. At the same time, she said, a u.f.t. study showed pupils who had been retained were twice as likely to drop out.

Ungraded units, Ms. Feldman reasoned, could help break the pattern by letting pupils “get through their first two or three years of school at their own pace.”

P.S. 41, one of two schools picked by the New York City Board of Education to test the concept, launched Project Success and Achievement in Learning in the fall of 1987. The city’s first public-school ungraded primary unit, it serves 561 of the school’s 925 K-5 pupils.

Project sail includes “cores” of classrooms serving children ages 5 and 6, 6 and 7, 7 and 8, and 8 and 9. Core teachers share lunch and preparation periods each day.

PS 41 teachers also coordinate instruction around common themes and share information, so that “a child who needs more help or enrichment in a subject can be moved around within the core,” said Principal Herbert Ross, who is not related to Mr. Ross of Lake George.

The school also has committees to help make decisions on pupils’ movement between age groups within sail and from sail to 4th grade.

About 10 to 15 percent of the pupils join other age groups for instruction at some point, Mr. Ross said. Five 8- and 9-year-old pupils have accelerated enough to be placed in 4th grade.

While the school has cut down on “tracking,” it still has an enrichment program for top students and some ability grouping in the cores.

“We have a lot of teachers we are moving” toward more heterogeneous classes, “but we have to move slowly,” Mr. Ross said. “It’s a compromise.”

P.S. 41 tried a system where pupils switched teachers for some subjects before opting for a “home base” with a stable teaching team.

At first, teachers hesitated to shift pupils among age levels. “It’s human nature to be comfortable with what you have,” Mr. Ross said. ''We pushed them to use the concept.”

The school is trying, the principal added, to work out a more formalized way to monitor pupil movement. A management team of three administrators, three teachers, an aide, and a u.f.t. representative also meets regularly to assess the project.

Shared decisionmaking at both schools, faculty say, has allowed principals and teachers to collaboratively design and fine-tune the programs.

“They never could have done it in a top-down mode,” Ms. Feldman said of P.S. 41’s Project sail.

The collegial climate at Lake George has fostered an openness to change, said Bonnie Nadig, a parent. “They’re not afraid to try it and then say, ‘Let’s try something else.”’

Both schools have fused other progressive teaching techniques with the multi-age concept, such as literature-based reading, process writing, thematic planning, team teaching, and cooperative learning.

In rooms decorated with elaborate art projects tied to curricular themes, Lake George pupils read independently and aloud, create their own books, and solve math problems with paper and pencil and on computers. They move easily from solitary to group activities and appear comfortable working alone or in pairs.

In Project sail classrooms, pupils brainstorm on how to begin a writing project and recite “rap” verses, drills, and songs to build their vocalubaries.

In addition to structured lessons, pupils also spend time in “learning centers” where they can read, play music, manipulate objects, or play creative games to reinforce lessons.

The school also highlights pupils’ cultural and ethnic heritage and runs an urban-studies museum.

Both schools try to strike a balance between structured activities and those that offer choices.

“The learning is open, but the school day is very structured,” said Sherman Parker, the Lake George superintendent. “Kids know where they’re supposed to be.”

“There’s structure, but not so much that students feel they have to stay in little boxes,” said Diane Brannon, a P.S. 41 teacher.

Both schools shun formal grades and report cards and have their own pupil profiles and progress reports.

The Lake George school is replacing standardized tests for kindergarten and 1st grade with a developmental instrument. P.S. 41 has not been successful in its bid to eliminate standardized tests until 4th grade, but test results, though favorable, have been downplayed by school officials.

“The school doesn’t focus on the scores,” said Michelle Boden, a P.S. 41
teacher. Added Michael A. Vega, the Brownsville superintendent, “They didn’t orchestrate” test preparation.

More telling than tests, he said, are sharp increases in parent involvement and in the school’s power to hold students despite a transient surrounding population.

The multi-age approach wins praise for allowing pupils to progress easily and stemming frustration among slow learners. “The children are constantly being challenged,” said Cynthia W. Ellinger, a Lake George parent.

Less adept pupils, said Cynthia Lichtenthal, a P.S. 41 teacher, are ''not forced into a mode of negative self-fulfilling prophecy.”

“No one is telling them they can’t,” said Nancy Corsetti, a teacher at Lake George. Multi-age groups foster a “family feeling,” said her colleague, Rick Trzaska, and encourage children to aid each other.

“Kids are basically copycats,” said the P.S. 41 teacher Cathy Mumford. “Faster children motivate slower children,” agreed Harriet Litvack.

Staff members add that multi-age grouping has eased the way for greater interaction between special-education and regular students.

But one parent warns that the approach is not ideal for all pupils.

“The system works wonderfully for those who don’t have this kind of problem, but my son needs more structure,” said Alice F. Larsen, a Lake George parent whose son has a visual learning disability.

Despite the efforts to individualize instruction, she added, some pupils still recognize differences in each others’ progress and compare notes.

The “noise and movement” of ungraded units also takes “getting used to” for teachers, noted Deborah Pierce, a P.S. 41 teacher-trainer.

Despite such hurdles, officials at both schools maintain their programs can be replicated successfully.

But such efforts require “tremendous dedication,” Mr. Parker noted, and “a lot of time and investment.”

According to Mr. Ross of P.S. 41, Project sail may have to increase its class sizes if the board does not renew its funding. And the board continues, he said, to request test scores, pupil counts by grade, and other data at odds with the project’s philosophy.

In addition to moral support, said Ms. Feldman, schools launching ungraded units need start-up funds, training, and time to plan, consult experts, and visit schools.

It boils down, she said, to “a question of what kind of systemic support will be given.”

A version of this article appeared in the December 06, 1989 edition of Education Week as ‘Living Laboratories’ Let Pupils Develop at Their Own Pace