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Back to school: Four more elementary schools regroup classes
Schools are splitting grades K-5 into three clusters, instead of two.
By JEFFREY S. SOLOCHEK, Times Staff Writer
Published August 5, 2007
WESLEY CHAPEL - It all started as an experiment.
Teachers at Wesley Chapel Elementary thought they might reach students more effectively by regrouping their classes. Instead of splitting the children into two clusters for instructional purposes -- kindergarten through second grade and third through fifth grade -- the school would have three teams.
"We felt, developmentally, the kids were a little closer in a K-1, 2-3, 4-5 setting," assistant principal Jeff McLean said.
A year later, Wesley Chapel educators and parents were so pleased with the results that they started talking about the idea with other area school leaders. The upshot is a mini-revolution in central Pasco, with no fewer than four more elementary schools following Wesley Chapel's lead this fall.
"We believe it will provide ... a narrower focus on the Sunshine State Standards and let people hone in on the standards they're responsible for," said Jill Middleton, principal of Sanders Memorial Elementary in Land O'Lakes. "When you plan for more levels, you're more stretched."
With the regrouped classes, she expects teachers to have more time to offer enrichment lessons for advanced students, as well as the expected remedial work for those who are lagging behind.
The change also should make the critical transition into third grade easier for children, who will be taking the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test for the first time, Denham Oaks Elementary principal Mardee Kay Powers said.
Under the past arrangement, many third-graders had trouble adjusting to classes with fifth-graders, where teachers had more advanced expectations than the K-2 team.
"Developmentally and socially, they're not always ready for that transition," Powers said.
Just one simple example to make the point. In the K-2 teams, children generally sit at tables and work in groups.
In the 3-5 teams, they usually have individual desks and are expected to be more independent.
Some schools plan to put their "transitional" grades 2-3 teams at desks, but in cooperative learning groups, so it won't seem so odd when the children move to separate desks.
The hope is that the new grouping system will push many of the social issues by the wayside, allowing increased attention on lessons.
That in turn should make the move into fourth grade that much smoother, said Ginny Yanson, principal of Sand Pine Elementary in Wesley Chapel.
Also driving the new team configuration is the district's adoption of Learning Focused Strategies, a different way of looking at the most effective methods of reaching students.
"Part of the focus of LFS is two grade levels together," noted Tammy Kimpland, principal at Oakstead Elementary in Land O'Lakes. "Because this is our training year, we wanted our school to be set up to take full advantage of LFS."
Kimpland, like the others, stressed that the change does not alter the schools' commitment to continuous progress of each child. Children will remain with teams of teachers, and they will be moved into learning groups as their specific achievement levels dictate. The teams will just be smaller.
For now, the grouping switch appears limited to the central Pasco schools, whose principals regularly meet to share ideas. But there's nothing stopping other schools from trying it, too.
"Our principals are always looking for different strategies ... and different ways to work with students that are successful," assistant superintendent Ruth Reilly said. "It truly is a school-by-school choice."
Just ask Michelle Berger. The Quail Hollow Elementary principal said her staff decided not to change grade configurations this year, so they can see how the setup works at other schools first.
The school expects to be split next year, anyway, when the yet-to-be-named elementary school "P" opens nearby.
"The teachers just felt it would make more sense to wait," Berger said.