Split Classes - What's Your Experience?

From reader Seeking Feedback: 

I'd love to see a thread sometime on split classes (2 or more grades in one classroom) in elementary school. What are parents opinions? Do they work? Are they better, and if so what are the advantages? Or- is the teacher having to cover too much ground and are kids missing some content?

With the capacity crunch and the SEA contract on overages, it seems that SPS is putting more pressure on schools to have split classrooms, and I wonder if it's working.

(There are some answers already at the Friday Open Thread.  Thanks to those readers for jumping right in.)


Anonymous said…
My child is in a split grade class at Lincoln and it's going well so far. I think it is more work for the teacher - but it seems like they put a really strong teacher with the class (probably for that reason). I think split grade classes were often the norm at Lowell and I know that John Hay usually had a split 4/5 class so I don't think it's that big a deal (assuming you have an organized teacher who can stay on top of the curriculum). Of course my attitude is probably colored by my experience in mixed grade classes when I was in elementary school (I was in them for 3 years and they were all fine).

Anonymous said…
My daughter was in public Montssori, which by nature is a split class. It worked well for her> I remember my then 4-yr-old coming home and proudly proclaiming "Miss Maureen let me do kindergarten work!" But that was before all the testing and ed reform took hold. I have no ida how well it works now. I too will be interested to hear.

Karen said…
This is a great topic. I hope more will post with their experiences. Jane, is your child the younger or older grade? I'm asking since I wonder if people's opinions vary based on if they are the younger half versus older. Then, it would be interesting to hear if the younger kids (i.e. 2nd graders in a 2/3 split) are bored when/if they go into a "straight" class for 3rd grade.
dw said…

Split classes were sometimes unavoidable at Lowell (APP) because of the size and nature of the program, but they were never desired. In fact, classroom sizes were sometimes significantly mismatched to avoid them.

The problems are obvious: teachers need to work with a much wider range of needs and curricular materials, students can potentially have a less-than-ideal experience with fewer age peers, potential repeat of material for some kids and missed material for others, etc. If you have a wonderful and organized teacher, they can work, and there can even be a few benefits around the edges for some students, but it's never ideal. Ask the teachers.

I don't want to confuse this with programs that are actually designed around multi-age classrooms, such as Montessori, which can work quite well for some kids. But ad-hoc split grade classrooms are almost always related to enrollment numbers in the building, unplanned, and unfortunate. You may hear anecdotal stories of good experiences (I have one myself), but they usually revolve around outstanding teachers, and could have been even better experiences if they had been single grade.
Anonymous said…
My child had a bad experience with a last minute 2/3 split. There was no effort to make it a balanced class and no effort to give the 2nd graders appropriate materials. They did science, etc., with the 3rd graders. It was essentially a grade skip, which became a grade repeat the following year as a third grader in another class. 2nd and 3rd grade recesses weren't even at the same time, so friendships were hard to maintain. It was an example of how not to do a split class. Horrible.

weighing in
Anonymous said…
In upper grades (don't know about lower), BF Day just switched from split classes to "mini middle school". The teachers work as a team, and the students switch to different teachers for math and reading, so that they can work with an appropriate ability group. As the parent of a kid with wildly different skills in math and reading, it's been great!

BF Day parent
Anonymous said…
I posted this in the Friday thread:
My daughter was in a 2/3 split as a 3rd Grader. The obvious downside to being a child in the higher grade level of a split: social stigma. I know some of the 3rd Graders were teased initially, and I also know (some) other parents thought the 3rd Graders in the class were the "slow learners." In reality the situation was quite different. Most of the 3rd Graders were independent learners, and I assume they were chosen because of this. My kid does well at school (90s in her MAP tests, above grade level for reading, so we were surprised she ended up being in this particular split.) Social stigma is a tough one though, and it took a few months for everyone to adjust. Her teacher was great, and did a very good job of differentiating. It was also a smaller-sized class than others in the school, so that was a huge plus. My daughter ended up having a good year, but I'm still a bigger fan of non-split classes.

Seattle NW Parent
joanna said…
The split classes work better for the lower class students (in a 2-3, it will work better for the second graders) as it almost seem like a promotion and generally there is some effort to put the more mature younger class into the split. Even if the adults feel some of the older children are little immature, this does not generally feel good for the higher grade level. Kids have their pride and dignity and hierarchy too. I think it also rather disrupts the family and social relationships that develop by grade level. For instance, they are cut off from interacting with others with whom they are preceding through the school. Research shows that students tend to interact more with their classmates who are in the same classroom on the playground. Anyway I do support mixing up the grouping year by year, but at the same grade level. It may be a little less sensitive in a school that is all one room or two room as long as the grade levels are honored. No matter who the students, they are always happy to be promoted to the next grade. When ever there was a discussion that there might be splits, if my daughters were in the higher grade level, they always expressed that they hoped not to be in the split. If they were in lower grade, they said it would be fine. They never were in splits and were happy to not be in a split.
Anonymous said…
My child is a 3rd grader in a 2/3 grade class. He hasn't commented on any social stigma (and he's definitely the type of kid that would complain to me if he felt there was any). The different grades are doing different things for science and the 3rd graders get pulled out for math with the math specialist. The kids are able to have lunch and recess with their own grades.

It's definitely more work for the teacher - but my child's teacher seems up for the job.

Sacajawea checking in!. My son had K/1 first year but that split was cancelled after his K year. Reading was a big part of that year and there was a Book Bridges program where each child's reading level was assessed by the teacher and that level mapped onto a set of appropriate books. Each week a parent volunteer would meet with the child, select a new book if required and suggest to the teacher a level change if they thought it appropriate. Now he is in a 4/5 split, no real reading differentiation but they do walk to math which covers 4/5/6 grade math. They also have a 'reading buddy' program where older kids read with the younger ones 1:1. Overall very happy with it.
Anonymous said…
This was a couple years ago, but Bagley had nearly every class as a split. I think it began due to enrollment, but with half the school in Montessori (3-grade) classrooms I think the teachers decided having everyone work that way was a natural step. I know by the time my youngest left the school that they could have gone to single-age classrooms and chose not to.

I think the intention was to facilitate differentiated teaching, and I know at first the Montessori-trained teachers acted as mentors for the multi-age stuff, but in the end they told me all the teachers were learning from each other. I think it wasn't so much the multi-age or not that made the school successful. It was the teachers coming up with a plan and following it over several years until they all worked out all the kinks together.
Catherine said…
My son was both in the lower and upper 1/2 of splits for about half of elementary, and we moved him to a montessori middle school. Managing a split - is a skill and it seems to me that the success or failure has more to do with the ability/training to manage that (and a good mix of kids) than a blanket statement pro/con regarding splits. We had an experienced teacher in a 2/3 split (both ends) who did well. We had a brand new certified teacher for the first part of a 1/2 split and it was a mess. The two 15+ year teachers for the montessori program for the 3 years... probably the most transformative learning my son had. High school - Nova - was lots of mixed grade classes - he loved it, and it's served him well. I can't make a blanket statement, only that our experience was generally good to very good, with one mess.
Stu said…
We had a pretty bad experience with a split class in 1st grade. Our son was in a 1st/2nd split and, at the time, he was a pretty advanced 1st grader. He was reading and writing already, as were a few other 1st graders in the class, but the remaining first graders and about half the 2nd graders weren't yet. The problem, at least at that early and age, is that 6-7 year olds need attention and the teacher would often leave 4-5 of the kids to work on their own (so to speak) for an hour while she worked with the other kids. We would come to school and find our son sometimes sitting out in the hall writing something 'cause the teacher was busy with the other kids.

As the district increases class size but doesn't add additional support (interns/student teachers/etc) into the room, more kids are going to be ignored and fall behind while the teacher focuses on other groups. As the students get older, and can work independently, it might not matter as much, but in the earliest grades it's really important that the class progress together, as much as possible.

Cap the class size at 18-20, mixed ages might be fine; wit class sizes approaching 30 students, a single teacher is going to have to make some tough choices.

Josh Hayes said…
Back when AS1 was still called AS1, nearly all the classes were split. There was a single straight K section, but otherwise, every classroom had at least two grades, and probably the average was three. This worked better than a lot of people might think. Older kids usually used the opportunity to mentor younger kids - it's said that one really learns something when one teaches it, and that seemed to be the case.

Obviously, some subjects aren't suitable for a multi-age approach (I'm thinking here of math in particular: it really should be tied to ability, not age), but HAVING multiple ages in one's classroom allows the kind of differentiation that might otherwise come with a stigma attached.

The short answer is: it can work in particular settings with students and families who buy into the idea. I don't think it can be imposed against resistance very effectively.
Anonymous said…
Splits can and do work when there is a student centered reason for a split and a dedicated teacher with a good plan for making it work. Alternative and Montessori schools have very different teaching methods and teachers who are dedicated to putting the extra time and work into using these methods. Regular, test score conscious schools should not use children by throwing a couple kids from one grade into another grade and calling it a split class. Kids should not be assigned the job of balancing out gender or behavior in a classroom or keeping another program they are not enrolled in at a school. These reasons for splits serve teachers, the district, and parents but NOT students and result in inequitable access to appropriate education.

Gen Ed Mom
Eric B said…
Our elementary had splits at almost every grade because there were about 2.5 classes per grade enrolled. Since the growth in the system, that's moved to 3 classes per grade, and the splits have largely disappeared.

I think how well it works depends on the child and the teacher. For many years, two teachers team-taught a 3/4/5 split, and it was the most sought-after assignment in the school. My older daughter definitely benefited from splits, where the teacher had a chance to get to know her better. Because of a weird bump in enrollment, my younger daughter was the younger grade in a series of splits (1 in 1/2, then 2 in 2/3, etc.). That was a little harder, although she still did OK. I think some of the other kids in those classes had more trouble.
Anonymous said…
The point of split grades isn't to ability cluster over a wider range. That would be ridiculous and impossible. It is to provide excellent differentiated instruction accessible to a wide range of students. In real life, we don't get "instruction" as well defined bites made for exactly 1 person at 1 year of life. Within the same class students get to take on a variety of social and academic leadership roles as they age through multiple grades within one learning environment.

Montlake exclusively uses split classes. Salmon Bay exclusively uses split classes for grades 7/8. Graham Hill and Bagley extensively use split grades. These are all very popular effective schools in their regions. Most high schools also have students of multiple grades attending.

Anonymous said…
PS. Montlake is a popular and effective assignment area school where students MUST be assigned to multigrade classes whether they like it or not. It isn't a matter of buy in. No. I don't think families should get a choice on this one.

Anonymous said…
These are examples of student centered reasons for splits with educational philosophy behind them. There is also a school wide plan based on what will be best for those students in the next years. Our experience of a split was the opposite "throw some kids together and call it a split".

Gen Ed Mom
Anonymous said…
My child was in a 4/5 split in Bothell. There was no buy in and it wasn't a philosophical decision. Boundaries changed that year. It's how the leftover kids were distributed. IMO therein lies the difference: contingency vs intent. For my kid, it was a lost year. Had there been a different teacher leading the split (they blatantly gave more attention to the 5th graders), it would've been fine.

Anonymous said…
i was in a split in seattle schools in the late 70s and it makes me appreciate my old teachers/principals all the more.. i feel like differentiated learning was the norm in my elementary school (desegregated by bussing, and much more mixed racially/abilities than i see in my kids' class today). in a 3/4 split, i think it was a mix of all abilities, and i was not aware of any stigma (I was younger). we had small reading and small math groups, plus my teacher team taught with the teacher next door to make those reading/math groups (do any schools do that anymore? not at our NE school with 4 classes/grade - perfect environment for team teaching to lead to differentiation, right?) math was "go at your own pace" if our group as a whole scored well on the pretest of a chapter, we could skip the chapter and move on to the next. i can't imagine that happening these days at my kids' school!

Anonymous said…
I was in a 5/6 split class way back when in a SPS K-6 school. I was in 5th and it seemed the burden was shared - our teacher had the support of another teacher who took the 5th and 6th graders at different times for an LA/Reading period while our teacher took her students for math - and we even had another 5th grade teacher visit us periodically for a math session to give our teacher a break. We sat on different sides of the classroom and instruction in math was focused to one group/grade level while the other side was busy with their tasks. It seemed to work well - and yes, as someone here noted, we had a "strong" teacher who was very firm with boundaries. I do recall a bit of bullying of the 5th graders by the 6th graders during PE and at other times but overall, it was a good experience. I always felt I was in a "higher level" classroom and perhaps those of us chosen in 5th grade were a bit more mature and independent than our peers. I don't know if we were specifically chosen for this mix based on profiles and grades - but I always assumed so.

From Experience
TechyMom said…
McGivlra has three 4/5 split classes (all the 4th and 5th graders) and has for several years. My 4th grader is in one of these classes, and it seems to work fine. They do walk to math, with each of the three classroom teachers taking a group, and the math specialist taking a 4th group. They also do some ability grouping for other subjects, though this hasn't really started yet. These classes are large (29), and the teachers seem to making it work well. I don't think it would work nearly as well if they had a 4th grade class, a 5th grade class and a split class. Making all three classes multi-grade allows the teachers to work together in a smoother way.

I agree that multi-grade classes that are intentionally designed can work very well. Classes made up of "left-over" kids are pretty hard to make work, and require a very talented teacher. Unfortunately, those classes seem too often to get "left-over" teachers as well.

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