Look at a professional baseball team, a marketing firm or an automobile assembly plant and what do you find? People of different ages and abilities -- but similar interests -- all working together toward a common goal.
What if elementary schools were the same? What if, instead of dividing students into classrooms solely according to their age, students were divided into groups based on their individual interests? Wouldn't that give students a more accurate perception of the world?
Educators at Riverside School and New York School think so, and that's just one of the many reasons the schools are switching to multi-age groupings next school year. Although the arrangement is new to Lawrence, educators in other school districts have adopted the same approach and found it to their liking.
Starting in the fall, Riverside students will be placed in one of three classes that combine grades one through three or in one of three classes that combine grades four through six. Kindergarten classes will not be combined with other grades.
New York School will have these combinations: grades kindergarten and first; grades two and three; and grades four through six.
The classrooms will be much like the ones found at Lincoln Elementary School in Iowa City, Iowa, which combines grades one through three and grades four through six. Lincoln Principal Chris Kolarik said the arrangement is less artificial than the traditional one.
``School for many years has been the only place in society where people of the same age are kept in the same group all day long,'' Kolarik said.
That artificial arrangement usually results in teachers presenting a single, standardized curriculum that is not likely to meet the broad range of developmental needs among individual students, Kolarik said.
When efforts are made to address individual needs, Kolarik said, students sometimes receive unwanted attention from their peers.
``All children do not learn to walk and talk at the same time,'' Kolarik said. ``Just because a child is not reading in first grade does not mean there is a problem with that child.
``With multi-age groupings, you can have students at the same developmental level work together and not put a stigma on them.''
Riverside Principal Donna Osness said doing a better job of challenging students at their individual levels is the school's overriding reason for moving to multi-age groupings.
She gave as an example a hypothetical unit on ecology. Some students in a classroom might be assigned to learn about the different kinds of recyclable products. Other students might go one step further and learn about recycling processes. Another group might be challenged one step further and assigned to find out what recycling outfits can be found locally. They might also study the role of government in regulating recycling.
Just because a third-grader might occasionally work with first-graders does not mean the student will be graduated to fourth grade before he or she is ready, Osness said. In fact, she said, because students will have the same teacher for three years, it will be easier to track students' individual progress.
``We're going to stay with them until we are sure that they are competent and understand a concept before we move them on to the next one,'' Osness said. ``We're not going to just be passing them along.''
Having students for several years in a row has another advantage, said Marcia McIntire, who teaches in a school with multi-age groupings in the Winfield School District.
``At the beginning of the school year, the students that you had the previous year can really help you teach the new students the ins and outs of the classroom,'' said McIntire, who teaches fourth- and fifth-graders at Country View School.
Kolarik said multi-age groupings also provide a school better control of classroom sizes. Rather than having 28 students in a fifth-grade class and 18 students in a fourth-grade class, for instance, students can be more evenly distributed among multi-age classes.
Kolarik said officials from several school districts have checked out Lincoln School solely because they're interested in controlling class sizes. But when Riverside staff members visited the school, they came with a much broader perspective, Kolarik said.
``I think they're really trying to approach this from a philosophical basis, and I think it's very important to do it from that basis,'' Kolarik said.
Rusty Brown, whose daughter will be a fourth-grader at Riverside next school year, said he's excited about the changes.
``With multiple years with the same instructor, you avoid all the lead-in time at the beginning of the school year when the teachers try to get a handle on what the abilities of the students are,'' said Brown, one of several Riverside parents who have followed the school's planning for multi-age groupings.
``The kids will know more about the teachers and what to expect, and that should allow more learning to take place,'' Brown said.
Some present Riverside teachers have requested transfers to other schools because they feel more comfortable with the traditional classroom setting. Teacher Karen Crowe, on the other hand, will be transferring from Hillcrest School to Riverside.
``I think that this arrangement lends itself to giving opportunities to children at both ends of the spectrum of ability, and I feel like I haven't been able to address those opportunites as well in a self-contained, one age-level classroom,'' Crowe said.
Crowe and other Riverside teachers will meet several times this summer to prepare for next fall. Osness conceded that the move to multi-age groupings will demand more of teachers.
``It's a real hard job for teachers because they have to be anticipating what the students are interested in,'' Osness said. ``They're really going to have to be ahead of the kids.''