Common Core an impetus for nixing blended classrooms

by: REVIEW FILE PHOTO: VERN UYETAKE - Lake Grove Elementary School Principal Carol Whitten helped pack up the former Uplands Elementary School when she was principal there. The school's final days were in June 2012, but it could reopen, depending on a real estate study.The Lake Oswego School Board introduced blended classrooms in the 1992-93 school year — and teachers are asking the board and district administrators to consider making all or some of the blended classes into single-grade classrooms next year.

Director of Elementary Education Jonnie Shobaki told the board at a meeting earlier this month that there are pros and cons to unblending classrooms, and she said a gradual unblending would work best if the board chooses to go that route. Unblending could require adding four or five full-time equivalent teaching positions.

In Lake Oswego, blended classrooms contain third- and fourth-graders or first- and second-graders and previously fifth- and sixth-graders, before sixth grade shifted to the junior high. The board introduced blended classrooms after the 1990 passage of Measure 5, a law that limited property taxes, reducing funding for schools. The district recently has worked hard to close budget gaps, even closing Uplands, Bryant and Palisades local elementary schools, which were repurposed for other uses.

Blended classes require fewer teachers, which reduces the school district’s costs. by: REVIEW FILE PHOTO: JIM CLARK - City, county and school officials gathered at the Lakewood Center 24 years ago to rally against Measure 5, but the majority of Oregon voters ignored the protests, passing the measure in 1990.

Some teachers say it is difficult to teach a classroom containing two grade levels. Shobaki said some experts say there are social-emotional benefits to blends involving mentoring of the older children to the younger children.

Teachers are interested in unblending classrooms now because next school year begins the formal introduction in Oregon of Common Core State Standards, a near-nationwide curriculum change requiring students to meet specific academic goals each year. New standardized testing statewide incorporating Common Core concepts is coming in 2015. Students must achieve certain minimum scores on the standardized tests to graduate from high school.

District officials recently met with about 75 teachers, and most of them preferred unblending classes.

“Teaching blends means that we are constantly diluting the richness that the older grade should be exposed to in order to make it more manageable for the younger grade,” Lucinda Watson, who teaches a first-second grade blend at River Grove Elementary School. “On the flip side, the younger grades are not getting the nitty-gritty basics they deserve.”by: REVIEW FILE PHOTO: JIM CLARK - Former Lake Oswego Mayor Alice Schlenker advised voters against passing Measure 5 in 1990, using a dollar bill to show that state agencies would need to fight for tax dollars if it passed, which it did.

District Superintendent Bill Korach said having blended classes was a good strategy in its day, but it’s time to try something new.

“Our teachers make it happen for our kids, so we’ve got to create the conditions for them to be successful,” Korach said.

Shobaki said unblending classes would acknowledge teachers’ concerns. Yet, River Grove, Lake Grove and Forest Hills may not have classroom space to handle the unblending of all classes. There could be as many as six more classes added in the school district, depending on enrollment, if all classes are unblended. A fully unblended or straight configuration could require about five more full-time equivalents (enough hours for five full-time teachers). A partial unblending could mean adding about four full-time equivalents, she said.

A partial unblending would give an insight into potential outcomes for a total unblending, Shobaki said. Keeping the status quo would be fiscally responsible but could make the state testing more challenging.

She is meeting with principals and asking them to bring feedback from their staffs, which Shobaki will be presenting to the board within the next few weeks. Board members then could make a decision on the issue.

Board member Bob Barman said district administrators should bring the issue before parent teacher organizations and school advisory committees.

“I hope you share this,” Barman said.

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