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posted: 2/25/2013 5:30 AM

Glen Ellyn schools rethinking grade levels

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  • Fourth-grade students Alice Gramlich, Lilia Carman, Zach Bertrand and Ajani Rowland work on an electromagnet project with teacher Dee Dee Aldrich at Churchill Elementary School in Glen Ellyn. District 41 officials are proposing to combine grade levels as part of an effort to better focus on science, math and literacy instruction.

       Fourth-grade students Alice Gramlich, Lilia Carman, Zach Bertrand and Ajani Rowland work on an electromagnet project with teacher Dee Dee Aldrich at Churchill Elementary School in Glen Ellyn. District 41 officials are proposing to combine grade levels as part of an effort to better focus on science, math and literacy instruction.
    Mark Black | Staff Photographer

  • Mark Black/mblack@dailyherald.com  Fourth grade students, Michael Rossi Nathan Navarro, Mario Vences and Luke Sullivan work on their an electricity science project at Churchill School. Glen Ellyn School District 41 is proposing to combine classes as part of the Think Tank initiative, in an effort to better focus on science, math and literacy instruction.

      Mark Black/mblack@dailyherald.com Fourth grade students, Michael Rossi Nathan Navarro, Mario Vences and Luke Sullivan work on their an electricity science project at Churchill School. Glen Ellyn School District 41 is proposing to combine classes as part of the Think Tank initiative, in an effort to better focus on science, math and literacy instruction.

 
 

Ask any 8-year-old who attends school in Glen Ellyn what grade he or she is in and the answer you might soon receive could be surprising.

No longer will the student say second or third grade, but "Level Two."

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The new terminology is just one thing students, parents and teachers in Glen Ellyn Elementary District 41 will have to get used to if the school board approves implementation of the Think Tank initiative, a plan that would combine second and third grade classes, and fourth and fifth grade classes, as part of a larger effort to better focus on science, math and literacy.

On Monday, district administrators are expected to present to the board their final recommendations for putting in place at least a portion of the initiative beginning this fall. District officials have indicated it's possible the program will be piloted at some of the district's four elementary schools, with the goal of full implementation over the course of the next three years.

But many parents say the initiative is too much, too fast.

The district is proposing students start their day in a homeroom, receive instruction in literacy and social studies in the morning, for example, then go to a different teacher in the afternoon for math and the "STEAM" curriculum -- an acronym for science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics.

The entire multi-age group would receive instruction in literacy and social studies but would likely be split up into traditional grades for STEAM instruction.

Teachers, instead of covering all subjects in one classroom all day, would specialize as either literacy/social studies instructors or math/STEAM instructors. That would allow them to refine their craft, officials say, and provide more in-depth learning opportunities for students.

It's the district's response to the new demands of 21st century teaching and learning, the coming national implementation of Common Core standards, and a better way to be on pace with students in other countries, said Karen Carlson, the district's assistant superintendent for teaching, learning and accountability.

She also says previous district surveys of students and parents have shown there to be a desire for a more challenging school day experience.

"We have 21st century children, but sometimes our curriculum is a little more 20th century. And it's a 19th century schedule," Carlson told parents at a recent meeting. "How can we bring it all together?"

A 66-member committee of administrators, teachers and parents -- called the Think Tank -- began brainstorming in the fall of 2011 as part of the district's long range planning process. Their proposal was brought to the school board for the first time in November.

Since then, many parents have said there's too many changes being proposed all at once. A group of parents calling themselves Why 41? started a website and put together a petition drive -- with some 500 signatures to date -- that has urged district administrators and the school board to put a halt to the Think Tank in the 2013-14 school year.

"We're throwing so many things into the pot, how are we going to know if we are successful if we're doing everything at once?" said Stephanie Clark, a parent who has students in kindergarten and third and fifth grades in the district. "None of the things they're trying to do are interdependent on each other."

Teresa Milich, a parent of third- and seventh-graders, said in her background as an organization development consultant, a similar approach to change in the private sector would be "a recipe for failure."

Many parents have also questioned the need to approve the initiative before current Superintendent Ann Riebock retires in June. And with an election coming April 9, there will also be changes to the school board.

"You never make a change like this when you have a new owner coming in," said Steve Seaney, the parent of a kindergartner and fourth and seventh graders. "You don't launch a project when you're gonna lose your sponsors and the project manager."

But Carlson said the recommendations are coming from the entire Think Tank group, not just one person. And, she says, they've been working on the initiative for 18 months.

"In some respects, I'd say if you talk to some of the people in the original group, they feel like we've given it the time."

The district has used a Wisconsin charter school as a model of sorts for what it could implement.

The Waukesha STEM Academy, located west of Milwaukee, opened three years ago with some resistance but is now getting a better reception from parents and students, according to Chris Kluck, principal of the school's K-5 building.

Since opening, the school has always focused its curriculum on science, technology, engineering and math, but this year was the first time students were placed in multi-age classrooms. The goal with such an arrangement, Kluck said, is to provide instruction that is personalized to each student's ability level.

For example, in the school's "Level One" classes made up of traditional kindergartners and first-graders, students may be separated into math groups of those who can add 1-digit numbers, and those who are ready to add 2-digit numbers.

"All kids are different and have different learning needs and learn at different paces," Kluck said. "You want to pitch it where they can hit it."

The District 41 school board is expected to take a final vote on the Think Tank initiative March 11.

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