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Article updated: 3/11/2013 10:52 PM

Combined-grade classrooms part of Dist. 41's plan

By Christopher Placek

Starting next school year, fourth- and fifth-graders who attend the four elementary schools in Glen Ellyn District 41 will be in multiage classrooms -- just one piece of the district's Think Tank plan approved unanimously Monday by the school board.

A 66-member long-range planning committee started meeting 18 months ago and, last November, presented its recommendation that would combine second and third grades, combine fourth and fifth grades, and allow teachers to specialize in literacy/social studies and STEAM, an acronym for science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics.

How the proposal would be implemented districtwide has taken different forms since then, with district administrators proposing as recently as two weeks ago that only Abraham Lincoln School would implement both teacher specialization and grade groupings in full for grades 2 through 5 starting next school year. Principals at the time said the implementation plan varied from school to school because of different teacher readiness levels.

But on Monday, Superintendent Ann Riebock presented a revised implementation plan for the upcoming school year: All schools will have teacher specialization in grades 2 and 3, and teacher specialization and multiage groupings for fourth and fifth grades.

The latest change was to create consistency in the implementation across the district in response to concerns from the community, Riebock said.

The change appeared to also assuage some board members who were on the fence about the Think Tank plan.

Board member Sam Black said he had some concerns with the Think Tank since the committee's inception -- and is still concerned with some aspects of teacher specialization in second and third grade and multiage groupings for fourth- and fifth-graders.

"But I'm not an educator and I'm deferring to teachers who gave their level of comfort on these issues," Black said.

Board member Steve Vondrak said he was originally concerned that teacher surveys showed there wasn't as much support for combining second and third grades. But the proposal brought to the board Monday was "significantly better," he said.

"I like the fact it's consistent," Vondrak said.

Board member Terra Costa Howard said she was a supporter of the Think Tank initiative since day one.

"The district has become very forward-thinking instead of entrenched in the old way of teaching that most of us in this room have been in," Costa Howard said.

District officials have said they proposed the changes in part due to the new demands of 21st-century teaching and learning and the coming national implementation of Common Core standards.

Still, some parents Monday urged the board to slow down the process.

Stephanie Clark, a parent of a kindergartner and third- and fifth-graders, said there is a petition of 577 signatures from parents and community members calling for a delay in implementation. She suggested the district do a pilot program to gather data and measure results.

"I worry that we are doing too much too fast with so many unanswered questions," Clark said.

District officials said TEAM 21, a successor committee to the Think Tank group, will be established to develop processes for putting the plan in place. That will include a simulated experience for students at the end of this school year and putting together a schedule for professional development for teachers.

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