Welcome to the one-room schoolhouse of the 21st century.
It's a conglomeration of children using different books, practicing different skills, learning at different speeds and in different ways.
The teachers -- a team instead of just one -- are more likely to be sitting in rockers than behind desks. Rarely standing at the front of the room, they move around, demonstrating capital F's at one table, evaluating student journals at another.
There are tables and chairs, but no neat rows of little desks. There are few textbooks, but lots of handouts and hands-on equipment. The slate has been replaced by a computer screen and the hickory stick by a "time-out chair."
If you call it multi-age grouping or continuous progress education, it's an innovation. If you call it a return to the one-room schoolhouse, it's common-sense education enhanced by technology.
Multi-age grouping is new this fall to Baltimore County -- and Maryland -- although it has been tried successfully in other states.
Four Baltimore County elementary schools -- Kingsville, Chadwick, Eastwood Center and Fort Garrison -- have combined groups of children -- usually 5-, 6- and 7-year-olds -- in one classroom.
Instead of being grouped by grade or age, the children are grouped by their level of development. One 5-year-old may be reading; another may not yet know the alphabet. Each has a place in the multi-age classroom, teachers say, and each can succeed without being bored or frustrated.
Multi-age grouping just "makes good sense" because no two children develop identically, said Kingsville Principal Rodney Obaker.
The idea, he said, is to fit the curriculum to the child and not the child to the curriculum.
Multi-age grouping also allows some children to have the same teacher for two or three years without having to adjust to someone new each September.
"In a program like this, our children move at their own pace," says Lois Balser, one of the creators of Chadwick's multi-age program. "Children have these spurts of learning."
Multi-age grouping also means fewer children will have to repeat grades, educators say. If youngsters don't master all of their first-grade skills, "does it pay off to repeat the whole year?" asks Ms. Balser. "My concern is the stigma behind retention. Everybody knows."
Chadwick, in the Catonsville area, has started the county's largest program, with 71 children who would normally be in kindergarten, first and second grades. They all share what used to be two classrooms with three teachers and two aides.
The teachers, Ms. Balser, Rosalie Giese and Clare Carter, spent months researching and visiting multi-age programs and continue to work at getting theirs to run well.
Ms. Balser and Ms. Giese have taught together for 19 years in classrooms that open into each other. Their space was converted into the multi-age room. Their long working relationship helped them set up the new program, which requires far more planning and organization than a traditional classroom.
Nevertheless, "the first days were overwhelming," said Mrs. Carter, who has taught prekindergarten for three years at Chadwick. She and Ms. Giese were ready to give up and return to their old classrooms during the first week of school.
"Now, I love it," Mrs. Carter said.
Kingsville, in the northern part of the county, has one "continuous progress" class of 22 students with one teacher. Its philosophy and approach are slightly different.
Pace of progress varies
"Some children just developmentally are not ready to move from a kindergarten to a first-grade classroom that's much more structured," Mr. Obaker said. Similarly, some first-graders aren't prepared for second grade. It was these students who were invited into the new program.
The group uses the standard curriculum, but in a different way. Children get the material in shorter segments, and they're more active.
"The reason we're doing this is maturity; some children just need a little more time," says the principal.
Formerly a special education center, Eastwood in Dundalk has several new programs -- one for prekindergartners through second-graders and one for troubled middle school students. The multi-age class has 32 students who would otherwise be attending nearby schools. The center has other prekindergartners, but they don't mix with the older youngsters yet.
Sandra Richter transferred from Reisterstown Elementary School to teach at Eastwood after attending a workshop with Eastwood's principal, Lois Valentine, a promoter of multi-age grouping.
Enjoyment is key
"One important thing that we've picked up on is that the children don't want to go home. They are really enjoying themselves," Mrs. Richter said in a classroom filled with new equipment and state-of-the-art teaching materials. "When they feel good about themselves, then the learning is going to come."
Ms. Valentine agrees: "At this age, I think education ought to be about making them want to be here, making them want to learn. We have all noticed how happy the children are. The parents so far are just thrilled."
First-year teacher Andrea Goldberg teaches with Mrs. Richter, and they have a teaching assistant paid for by federal funds for Chapter I schools -- those with large populations of low-income youngsters.
At Eastwood, books are transitions from one subject to another, as the 32 youngsters all gather briefly while an adult reads a short story. This quiets the children and serves and educational purpose.
"Some of these children really do not get read to," said Ms. Valentine. "The one thing that the research says makes a difference [in readiness for learning] is reading books to them."
The multi-age program at Fort Garrison, near Stevenson, has 23 students with one teacher and "a lot of parent volunteers," says Principal Lois Balcer. The youngsters are 6- and 7-year-olds who otherwise would be in the school's traditional first and second grades.
"The children may go as far as fast as they want," she said. A 7-year-old does not have to stop when she has mastered the second-grade curriculum, and a 6-year-old can go right along with the older child, if she's ready.
Ms. Balcer is enthusiastic. "We know that it's working and we know the children are happy," she says. The parents, too, are pleased, she says, and some have asked to have their child in a continuous progress class next year.
The 70 youngsters at Chadwick are rarely all together. There's a short general session in the morning. And, as 7-year-old John Griffin describes it, "We take up four tables at lunch."
Otherwise, the class groups, regroups and subdivides as the youngsters move among skills and subjects. Each afternoon, the group divides again into different thirds for music, art, physical education and other classes.
The program is built around three-week themes played out through books and related activities.
Each teacher teaches one book for three weeks while the youngsters -- divided into three multi-age groups -- rotate weekly among the teachers.
'Meeting individual needs'
The related activities vary with the book and a child's needs. "Some need to learn to cut; some need to work on their alphabet; some need to work on a specific letter or sound," Ms. Giese says. "I keep moving around. I need to check who knows the alphabet and who doesn't."
The children who can read work with Ms. Balser for a few minutes, then work independently from folders of assignments.
"I really like it," Mrs. Carter says. "I know that I'm meeting their individual needs. It's unlike first grade where we say [to every student], 'Today we're doing short i's, sorry if you already know it, just sit there for an hour.'"
Mrs. Carter and Ms. Giese laugh now about the first couple of days and the logistics of getting to know 70 youngsters and grouping them appropriately. And there's the noise, which the teachers think is considerable, but which a visitor did not find offensive.
The youngsters -- about 20 of whom have never been in school before -- are adapting well. They're unaware that they are breaking new ground and seem unaffected by the number of children or the noise level in their classroom.
"Do you like it here?" a visitor asks.
"Yeah, it's got fish," says one boy.
"It's got words around the room that you can spell," says another.
"I like playing. I can't wait for Christmas," comments 6-year-old Victoria Anthony.
"I like it because of this," says 6-year-old John Griffin, pointing to a new loft.
Furnished with bean bag chairs and stuffed animals that are bigger than the youngsters, the loft is for reading when your other work is done, John explains.
All of the students in the county's multi-age groups are there by their parents' choice, which is partly responsible for the programs' early success.
But despite good early reviews, the program isn't for everyone.
One kindergarten-age youngster transferred to one of Chadwick's regular half-day kindergartens when his mother decided he wasn't ready for a full-day, says Chadwick Principal Mattie Mumby.
"I think there will always be traditional classrooms, not only for the teachers but for the parents," Mrs. Carter says.
Nevertheless, Chadwick has a waiting list for this year's multi-age class and some early plans for adding other multi-age classes next year.
"The only reason we can't do it is the physical environment," Ms. Mumby says. "But we want to continue. We're taking a big risk, but education is a risk."