Educators give high marks to grade grouping

JOHNSTOWN – Greater Johnstown School District officials say grade-level grouping, which the district plans to start in 2014-15, has a positive effect on education.

Other districts in the region that have forms of grade-level grouping agree.

Broadalbin-Perth Central School District Superintendent Stephen Tomlinson said grade-level grouping has been effective in his district.

Queensbury Union Free School District Superintendent Douglas W. Huntley said his district’s grade-level grouping approach is working well.

“I think there are great efficiencies associated with that model,” Huntley said.

Hamilton-Fulton-Montgomery Board of Cooperative Educational Services Superintendent Patrick Michel said he’s happy with Johnstown’s decision to restructure its elementary schools.

“I’m very proud of the Johnstown school district,” Michel said.

The Johnstown Board of Education on March 14 unanimously approved an elementary school grade-level grouping plan, starting with the 2014-15 school year. Starting then, the makeup of the city’s three elementary schools will be this way: pre-kindergarten, kindergarten and first grade will be at Pleasant Avenue Elementary School; grades two and three at Glebe Street Elementary School; and grades four, five and six at Warren Street Elementary School.

Greater Johnstown School District Superintendent Robert DeLilli says his district contacted a couple of school districts that have grade-level grouping – the Queensbury Union Free School District in Warren County and Yorktown Central School District in Westchester County – and was impressed by what Johnstown found.

“They both were very positive, high in efficiencies,” DeLilli said. “In fact, teachers can often collaborate.”

The Johnstown district says grade-level grouping will provide a personal and effective teaching approach in the classrooms.

Before the district closed Jansen Avenue Elementary School in 2009, officials noted the district had many “singleton” classes – single classes for one grade in one school – especially at Warren Street Elementary School. Grade-level grouping will eliminate that situation, the district says.

Michel said the only component district that currently has grade-level grouping in his BOCES system is the Broadalbin-Perth Central School District.

“They seem to be very pleased with it,” Michel said. “A lot of people think education is supposed to be like when I was young.”

DeLilli said the Johnstown Board of Education visited the Broadalbin-Perth district before deciding to implement grade-level grouping.

The Broadalbin-Perth Central School District houses high school students and children in prekindergarten through grade two in two separate areas of a building on Route 29. The section for pre-K through grade two is called The Learning Community.

The district’s campus on County Highway 107 in Perth houses “intermediate” students in grades three to five in one area of the campus building, and middle school students in grades six to eight in another area of the building.

Tomlinson, who has worked for the district since the early 1990s, praises grade-level grouping.

He said after the Broadalbin and Perth school districts merged in 1987-88, the district kept grades kindergarten through five in each town.

“Within five years, we realized that wasn’t the most efficient way,” Tomlinson said.

He said the district then grouped students throughout the newly combined district.

“We thought having [each group] in one building made the most sense for efficiency and consistent instruction,” Tomlinson said.

He said having pre-K through second grade in one building ensures the children are getting the same message and curriculum from one leader.

When children of the same grades are taught in different schools, Tomlinson said, there are “different leaders.”

In grade-level grouping, students of a few grades are receiving the same direction, he said.

In Johnstown, the Pleasant Avenue Elementary School building will be reconfigured as an “early learning center” with a focus on reading and math. It will take a comprehensive approach to screening and diagnostics, and early intervention resources, the district says.

Glebe Street Elementary School in Johnstown will be reconfigured as a primary instruction center housing second and third grades. This grouping will allow “for a focus on young readers and critical thinkers, incorporation of multiple subjects and hands-on learning experiences,” according to the district’s resolution approving the plan.

The Warren Street Elementary School building will become an “intermediate instruction center,” allowing for a “focus on problem solvers, student project-based learning, and band, chorus and art ensembles,” the resolution stated.

Queensbury’s Huntley said his district’s grade-level grouping is a “unique” setup. He said the district has one campus on Aviation Road but four different buildings. They are: Queensbury High School; Queensbury Middle School for grades six to eight; William H. Barton Intermediate School for about 560 students in grades four and five; and Queensbury Elementary School for about 1,000 students in kindergarten to grade three.

Huntley said when a district has multiple elementary schools operating autonomously, there is a breakdown of the systemic approach to education. With all kindergartners in one building, Huntley said, there is a “stronger collaboration” in which the curriculum can be established in a more efficient way.

Johnstown’s DeLilli said there is a partial grade-level grouping situation at one of his former districts – the Gloversville Enlarged School District. He said prekindergarten through grade one students are grouped in a separate building at Meco Elementary School on County Highway 101. The second- through fifth- grade students in that area of Meco and Gloversville are grouped separately at McNab Elementary School on West Fulton Street.

Not everyone is in favor of the grade-level grouping plan in Johnstown.

Some parents and others in the community have expressed concerns. Some have cited logistical problems and others say they don’t see a need to change the current education model.

Some opponents have cited concern over having several students in one family attend three different elementary schools. They said this creates transportation problems.

Some opponents cited a possible loss of tradition in certain schools with the new format.

Still others say there isn’t enough research to determine whether grade-level grouping is an effective teaching model.

Some speakers at meetings have voiced concerns about what the plan may end up costing the district, especially if buildings have to be renovated.

So far, the district has cited the need for about $40,000 in renovations.