Friday, April 9, 2010

The K-8 model: Why it's great for everyone involved

Yesterday after my regular volunteer shift at my kids’ school library, I fell into a conversation with the library director and a fourth grade teacher. I was telling them about a story I heard several months ago by NPR education correspondent Claudio Sanchez on the advantages of schools like ours that cover grades K-8. The conversation so intrigued me that I did a little more research later in the day and found out that it’s a fairly hot topic in education circles right now: the issue of trying to make more schools cover a wider range of grades, though not necessarily increasing the size of the student body. That is, a medium-sized suburb that currently has four elementary schools and two middle schools might consider still having several schools but making all of them cover all the grades rather than clustering by age.

In our town, we have a K-8 campus simply because with a town population of barely 6,000, all we need is one large school to cover 800 kids between the ages of 5 and 13. But having been through the same school myself and now watching my two children, one a second grader and one a fifth grader, go through it, I spot new advantages all the time. And talking today with the library director and the fourth grade teacher opened my eyes to even more.

As the NPR story pointed out, older kids often behave better when younger kids are around. They feel important and recognize their value as role models. This is obviously not always true; some parents of young children are apprehensive about exposing their kids to middle school behaviors, and not all middle schoolers can be trusted to carry themselves as good examples. But for the most part, the presence of young and impressionable children keeps the pre-adolescent ones a little bit more in line.

Also, younger kids feel safer and just more cared for with older siblings or older kids they know from their neighborhood around. My daughter likes spotting her older brother across the cafeteria as one shift is arriving and the other is leaving; she likes seeing his friends as well. Last year when she was in first grade, she once climbed off the bus bursting with excitement: I could see from the gleam in her eyes that something terrific had happened. Did she win an award or meet a new friend, I wondered? No, it turned out the eighth grader who lives down the street had high-fived her in the hallway outside the nurses’ office. That recognition clearly made her day.

And while younger kids may be drawing succor from the presence of older kids, the students in the older grades often derive comfort from being able to interface with the teachers from their younger years. The NPR reporter mentioned this point, and I’ve certainly witnessed it firsthand. Kids who might be going through a difficult time feel better when they can drop in on the familiar face who greeted them every morning in kindergarten. When my son was in second grade, his teacher was one of the best-loved teachers in the school, and Tim used to joke about how some mornings he had to wait in line to enter his classroom because so many of her former students had dropped by to say hello to her before the middle school bell that there wasn’t any room for the second graders until the older kids cleared out.

The library director pointed out some additional advantages I hadn’t thought about. Not only do the two principals – we have one for grades K-4 and one for grades 5-8 – have plenty of time to get to know each child and each family as a whole, but other specialists can keep track of the kids’ progress and well-being over the course of the years as well: the counselors, the school nurses, even the library director herself said she likes seeing how kids grow and change from one grade to the next.

Our school has various ways of leveraging the advantages of contact between older and younger students. They have a “buddy program” in which older classes and younger classes get together once a month or so and the kids are paired up for special projects: sometimes it’s kindergarteners with fourth graders, sometimes third graders with eighth graders, and so on. They also proactively expose the kids to the work going on in different grades. Earlier this week my son and his fifth grade classmates attended the eighth grade science fair, and when the fifth graders had their own exhibition one morning dedicated to research on Colonial America, several younger grades filed through.

I do understand that a K-8 model has its drawbacks as well. In a town with a big enough child population for several schools, it’s a more practical use of resources to cluster by grade level: it’s easier to stock any one campus with the playground structures, science lab equipment or even textbooks appropriate to just three or four grades rather than nine grades. And some parents of younger kids do worry about risks inherent in the presence of older kids; at our campus this is minimized by the fact that there are separate buses, recess times and cafeteria times for older kids and younger kids.

To me it’s a great system, but it’s also what I grew up with, so sometimes I take it for granted. The talk in the library yesterday made me recognize anew what an advantage it is. And as we wrapped up our discussion, a first grade was filing in for their library session. The library director gathered them all together and then announced their story this week would be read by a special guest: an eighth grader who would soon be graduating from the school. The kids looked fascinated as the older girl sat down to read to them. The girl herself looked poised and proud. And the library director? Beaming with pleasure at the sight of a student she had known since the age of five, now almost three times that age, sitting down to share her love of reading with a new crop of six-year-olds.

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