As Catholic schools continue to search for ways to increase student enrollment, lower tuition costs and keep up to date on the growing use of classroom technology while offering students an individual way to learn, “multiage” classrooms are an option that addresses administrators’ economic and educational concerns.

A multiage classroom or grouping is an academic program whereby instruction, learning opportunities and movement within the curriculum is individualized to correspond with individual needs, interests and abilities. Rather than having one classroom for each grade, two grades are taught together in a single classroom, with the group working on the same topic, but each student working in the best way that meets his or her needs.

“Born out of necessity, and developed into a true benefit for each and every child,” said Mary Ann Rudella, principal of St. Joan of Arc School for the past seven years. “This was implemented because all of a sudden we had a very low enrollment, but we also learned that it really was the best way to meet the needs of each and every student.”

This past June, Fr. Michael Strachota, pastor of St. Joan of Arc, contacted Rudella to let her know that a number of sixth grade students had withdrawn their enrollment for that coming school year, and instead were planning to attend one of the two new middle schools in the neighboring Oconomowoc area school district. According to Rudella, “that was the snowflake beginning of a huge snowball formation.”

Day after day parents called and informed Rudella that they were withdrawing their children from St. Joan of Arc and sending them to other schools. According to Rudella, their reasons were diverse.

“Some families were moving to another city, some opted for the local public school which would serve their children with ‘more of everything,’ some were leaving for economical reasons, some were leaving due to friendships and/or fewer students at St. Joan’s,” she counted off from a list on her desk. “Not enough boys in the class, not enough girls in the class. In seventh grade, one girl remained.

“The stories were all unique and individual, but the bottom line was our enrollment declined from 127 to 91 when the raging snowstorm subsided,” she said.

Soon after, school administration banded together to fight what had been the inevitable for so many other Catholic schools in their situation: closing.

After discussing their situation with Sue Nelson, director of Academics and Faith Centers of Excellence for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, the idea of multiage learning arose. After much discussion, the decision was made to incorporate it into St. Joan of Arc’s classrooms for the 2009-2010 school year and beyond.

“The tendency of our school system has been to try to maintain the individual grades because, obviously, that would be a parent preference because of the lack of understanding of how multiage classrooms – done well – really works,” explained Nelson on why more schools haven’t taken up this type of educational setting.

“But any research will tell you that the whole concept of a multiage room – and meeting each learner where they’re at – is very sound,” Nelson added. “So, our language has changed from ‘split class’ which has a very negative connotation, because it feels like students are going to be missing out, or your children are going to somehow be getting half time with the teacher, and multiage is a completely different philosophy, where you are teaching to this group, and students can then be met to their abilities. There are many advantages to this concept, when it’s done right.

“For instance, you might have a child who is a first grader, but, in fact, we have first graders who come in as proficient readers, and you might have other first graders who have the alphabet down, but that’s where they’re at,” Nelson explained. “So, in a situation where you have a greater range of possible content, it’s very possible to take those children and they can be moving beyond what their grade placement might normally say they can do.

“The flip side of that, of course, is if a student is needing additional support, it’s structured in their daily life. I would say it’s a forum where teachers can truly identify individual strengths and weaknesses, and work with those,” she added.

Soon after the commitment to multiage teaching was made, teachers at St. Joan of Arc enrolled after in a multiage learning class at Alverno College, Milwaukee, and St. Mary School, West Bend, to learn how they could implement it into their own classrooms. According to Rudella, it turned out to be an exciting week.

“We attended that class on the first day knowing very little about multiage learning, and when we finished the course and the follow-up sessions, I think we felt pretty confident that we could begin, that we could begin to implement the program,” she said. “This is a 21st century initiative. We really try to meet the needs of each and every student, and multiage allows us to do that.”

One of the keys to maintaining a successful learning environment in a multiage classroom is the ability of the teacher, according to Nelson.

“This is so dependent upon the teacher’s comfort level, with being able to deal more with students individually as far as the instruction and that type of thing,” she said, adding “our teachers all do that well, but when you start spanning grades, there’s a level of creativity and management and those types of things that teachers have, but they certainly need the support.”

One challenge is to develop materials to accommodate the different learning levels, said Weas.

“Sometimes I find that the sixth graders have covered some basics, like maybe it’s metric conversion or some very simple equations that the fifth graders haven’t, and so I have to create different materials when we come to lessons like that,” she said.

At first parents were concerned about the new learning environment,  but it didn’t take long for them to warm up to the subject.

“They weren’t negative,” she said about the parents’ reactions. “I think they were just concerned or had questions.”

Because of the general lack of understanding, many parents believed their children would somehow “miss out” on important educational aspects, or be split in the attention they receive from the teacher because of the two grades meshed into one. Those are common misconceptions, according to Nelson.

“The key to the parent’s peace is communication,” she explained. “So where it’s been done well, they’ve responded well.

“We have to fight the perception that it is just a budget move,” she added.

Although many times budget and low enrollment are what pushes schools to take on multiage classes, “We just want our schools to be pro-active. We have a diocese with so many schools in such a remote area, and multiage could actually be the hallmark for that,” Nelson said.

Noting that she hasn’t taught in a multiage setting for long, Weas said she already notices a difference within her classroom. Older students have the opportunity to model good behavior and become leaders, she said, while the younger students “rise to the occasion,” learning from their older peers and often advancing in their education because of it.

“I’m excited to get into the third year of (teaching), because we would have so much time and experience under our belts. It’s really cool though when a teacher creates individualized materials, lessons, when appropriate, and you see it working,” Weas added.

St. Bruno School, Dousman, is considering the move towards multiage learning. While St. Bruno Parish has been doing “an outstanding job” in supporting the parish school, economic hardships have caused the school to tighten its belt and look for ways to keep the school going, according to Ralph Lynch, principal of St. Bruno for the past year.

“Well, we’re not positive yet, but we’ve looked at a few scenarios,” he said. “We’ve also done some research through Internet links to universities and educational Web pages, and the (Department of Public Education) has some articles on it. With appropriate training and a competent instructor, multiage or split classrooms are well taught, and kids can be extremely successful.”

Lynch, although impressed with the success of multiage learning, does have some reservations.

“The biggest challenge for the teacher would be preparing simultaneous lessons for two different grades, but if you’re a structured person – and St. Bruno has many of them – and you’re truly, actively involved and you’re connecting with kids, it can be done successfully,” he said.

According to Lynch, the decision to switch to a multiage classroom will be made after the final budget has been decided in March.

“We really are convinced that it’s just a great program,” Rudella said. “It’s really not combined classes. We’re not combining classes; we’re grouping children together so that there is better learning.”