Parents, students, teachers contend with split-level classes as school year starts

TORONTO — As the new academic year gets underway, students, teachers and parents are gearing up to deal with one of the education system’s more controversial elements: split-level classes.

Some parents worry that integrating students from several grades, typically to offset shrinking enrolment or mitigate a surge in a particular year, leaves younger pupils behind or fails to adequately challenge more advanced ones.

But educators and experts say split classes can be beneficial — and the outcome often depends on the teacher.

“When (my daughters) were first put in split classes, I wasn’t too happy about it,” says Christine Armstong, a mother from Innisfill, Ont.

One of her twin girls, Jessica, was in Grade 1 when she was placed in a split class with children from senior kindergarten, prompting Armstrong to fear the class would repeat the play-based learning her daughter had already experienced, she said.

Armstrong said she worried Jessica wouldn’t progress at the same rate as Grade 1 students in single-grade classes, but now realizes she was wrong.

“The teacher was so good,” Armstrong said. “She was very organized, and she was able to separate the two different grades and the different needs for each grade. It was amazing.”

This year, her other twin daughter Vanessa is enrolled in a Grade 5/6 split class and Armstrong said she wonders whether the experience will be different for a student on the younger side of the class.

“If (the teacher) is used to Grade 6 and she’s focused on the Grade 6s, will she be too hard on the Grade 5s?” Armstrong says. ”I’m not concerned, but I’m curious.”

Students can thrive in split classes if teachers are adequately prepared, said Clare Brett, a professor at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto.

“Like most things in schools, a lot depends on the teacher,” said Brett, adding split classes require considerably more work from a profession already under strain in Ontario.

Brett’s own children were in a split Grade 1/2/3 class about 15 years ago, which allowed her to observe how lessons unfolded, she said.

The work was usually divided up so the teacher would work with the Grade 3 students on math while Grade 2 students read independently and Grade 1 kids went to gym, she said. They would sometimes have class discussions all together, which she said fostered a sense of responsibility in the older students.

“It’s not like the one-room schoolhouse, which is what I think people think of it as,” Brett said. ”Done well, it’s learning experience for everybody.”

Richard Messina, principal of Dr. Eric Jackman Institute of Child Study Laboratory School at OISE, said he understands why parents are wary of split classes and acknowledges they aren’t a good fit for every child.

But he said many of the issues parents are concerned about — a gap in knowledge or in stimulation — exist in single-cohort classes as well. The difference typically isn’t that much more pronounced in split classes, he said.

“In every classroom, there is a developmental range in knowledge, in skill development, social-emotional development,” he said. “In some areas of the curriculum, the change from one grade to the other is small.”

It’s in classes where subject matter changes considerably from one year to the next, such as science and social studies, that “the creativity of the teacher needs to come in,” he said.

In the end, there’s no catch-all solution for what makes an effective classroom, he said.

“It’s not like working at The Gap, where every sweater is folded to look exactly the same,” he says. ”We’re working with human beings.”

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