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Detroit Experiment Puts Nearly 100 Kids in a Kindergarten Class

Ohanian Note: A kindergarten with 100 kids and three teachers seems outrageous enough. Add this: One of those teachers is in her first year, another is in her second.

This experiment is under the auspices of the Education Achievement Authority (EAA)in Detroit. In Detroit, the lowest five percent of test scores have been incorporated into a state-centralized model (EAA) that reports to its own corporate-based "board of education" appointed by the Governor. Their claim is that they "personalize" education. Translation: computer-delivered instruction.

The governor appointed Joyce Hayes-Giles, Senior Vice President of Public Affairs at DTE Energy Company, to head the EAA board.

Here's Arne's opinion:

"[The students] feel safer; they're learning more. They feel they're in an environment where they have a chance to be successful."
âArne Duncan, Secretary of Education, after recently visiting an EAA school

Did Arne's kids have 99 classmates in the room when they were in kindergarten.

In June, the EAA chancellor John Covington resigned amid criticism that the Detroit schools in the Education Achievement Authority (EAA) have failed to show improvement -- and as efforts to expand the system statewide have fizzled. Critics have also raised questions about the system's finances, student discipline and teacher turnover. Covington told the Free Press he has to care for a sick mother and is planning to launch the National Institute for Student-Centered Learning to "advise and provide support to school systems around the country eager to transform instruction." Take a look at Metro Times comment on this--as well as the broader issue of the EAA. It is written by Curt Guyette is an investigative reporter for the ACLU of Michigan.

The Free Press reported in April that "overall enrollment dropped 25% after the EAA's first year, and MEAP scores released earlier this year showed most EAA students either werenât showing improvement or were getting worse, despite internal testing showing students making big gains. In the first year, the district lost roughly a third of its teaching staff."

On July 29, Valerie Strauss featured this experiment.

Here's the Free Press story about the 100 kids in kindergarten.

Combined kindergarten a big teaching experiment

By Ann Zaniewski

Brenda Scott Academy kindergartners come together in May to work on a Mother's Day project. The students are in a classroom, in the school's reconfigured library, referred to as a hub. The three teachers, Sarah Hay, Michaela McArthur and Sara Ordaz, move the children around for different lessons in small groups.

Nevaeh Dukes, 6, sat with a tiny laptop, pressing keys as colorful shapes moved across the screen.

To her left, three boys were sprawled stomach-down on a rug as they worked with a teacher. In the distance, children were working on laptops or writing on pieces of paper, some quietly sitting alone off by themselves and others squirming or even dancing in their seats. A couple of kids walked around.

"I like it a lot because it's fun," Nevaeh said, "and I've got three teachers."

And nearly 100 classmates.

Neveah attends Brenda Scott Academy, an east-side Detroit school that is part of the Education Achievement Authority, the state's reform district for the lowest-performing schools. Officials here have combined three kindergarten classes in one big room called the Kindergarten Hub. The district has an extended school year that ends Aug. 7.

The hub is in contrast to the widely held belief that pupils learn better in small classes. The model appears to be unique in Michigan, according to early childhood education experts.

The hub's large size concerns some experts. Officials with the EAA say teachers using this system are better able to tailor their lessons to the needs of individual children.

"Research has shown smaller sizes work, but this model has pretty much in a sense, early on, has kind of proved that wrong," said Marques Stewart, Brenda Scott's principal.

Four other schools in the EAA have versions of hubs, or open learning spaces that incorporate technology, flexible scheduling and student-paced instruction. Brenda Scott's hub has the youngest kids.

When classes started last fall at the pre-kindergarten-8 school, some kindergartners could read simple words. Others had never seen the alphabet. Encouraged by then-EAA Chancellor John Covington's push for innovation, teachers and administrators wanted to close the gap.

The hub opened in February. The school library was turned into a classroom, a brightly decorated space loosely divided into different areas by kid-sized bookshelves.

Some parents and guardians were skeptical.

"I was like, 'How are they going to do all this? Will it work?'" said Kelvin Baskin, Nevaeh's grandfather and a classroom volunteer. "When I sat in on a couple classes, she was doing good.... They're pretty good at controlling it."

Each teacher has a homeroom, math and reading class. For reading and math, kids are put in a high-, middle- or low-level group and move to the corresponding teacher's section. There, activities can include whole-group lessons, small-group lessons and instructional games on laptops. Writing is taught in homeroom.

The entire group spends time together, too, such as on a day in May when about 70 students (a number were absent) sat on a rug to watch a teacher demonstrate how to cut out a paper watering can from an outline. A paraprofessional helps out two hours a day.

"To be able to put (advanced students) together, they can really push each other, and just excel that much more and that much faster," teacher Sara Ordaz said. "The same thing with our lowest kids."

Ordaz said by mid-May, the highest-level math students were doing word problems.

"They're just flying through," she said.

Through testing and the students' work on laptops, teachers say they can keep close tabs on their progress.

But the hub's academic impact is unclear. EAA officials are encouraged by their own internal test data that they say shows students making gains. The state-standardized MEAP test doesn't test students as young as kindergarten.

Parent Arthur Hill said he knows his son is learning, but he would prefer to see fewer students.

"They could make the class smaller to allow more teacher time with each student," he said. "When you have a lot of kids together, it's hard at that age to get their attention."

Joan Firestone, director of early childhood education for Oakland Schools, said targeted instruction is critically important. But, she said research has shown that "when you have bigger groups of children with more teachers, the outcomes aren't as good as when you have a smaller class with one teacher."

"I would never put my child in that kind of experience," she said. "I think it's too chaotic. Thereâs too many kids and too few adults."

Michigan doesn't track student-teacher ratios by grade. Firestone said generally the state's public kindergarten classes have gotten larger in the last decade, and most classes range from about 20 to 35 students. Thirty would be a rough average, she said.

The National Association for the Education of Young Children recommends kindergartners be educated in a defined group no larger than 20 to 24 students. Within that, it says, the teacher-student ratio range should be 1:10 to 1:12.

"Particularly for younger children, you need small groups for their ability to focus and their ability to form strong relationships with the teacher and to have an effective learning experience," said Barbara Willer, the organization's deputy executive director.

"One of the things that's important in terms of early childhood education is you're focusing on all areas of children's development. Not only academic development, but also their social development."

Those early relationships are especially important for at-risk children, Firestone said. At Brenda Scott, 73% of students qualify for a free lunch -- a barometer of poverty -- though the school gives free meals to everyone. The school is in an area with a highly transient population, school officials said.

Firestone, Willer and Keith Myers, executive director of the Michigan Association for the Education of Young Children, all said they know of no other kindergarten set up the same way. They learned about the hub through the Free Press and have never been there.

Denise Smith, vice president for early learning at Excellent Schools Detroit, a coalition of foundations and community leaders, was curious when she heard about the hub and observed it for 40 minutes in mid-May.

"What I think is unique and successful in this environment is that they are really using the opportunity to co-plan and co-teach, so they're able to expand in and out of their classes, to hone in on the needs of individual children," she said. "I think theyâre making it work.

"Would this work everywhere? I would have some reservations. It depends on the team of teachers, and the way they structure it."

Smith said she likes how Michaela McArthur, who at 30 is the oldest and most experienced teacher, serves as the lead teacher. Ordaz is in her second year of teaching and Sarah Hay, the third teacher, is in her first.

Smith said an area where teachers work with special-needs children could be more inclusive.

Hanging curtains from the ceiling and rearranging furniture could help cut down on the noise, she said, and divide the room better to help keep antsy students from spilling from one section to another during instruction.

"It wasn't chaos, but there was still a level of noise in the room and how it's structured that wouldn't exist otherwise," she said.

Mary Esselman, the EAA's deputy chancellor, said while the room may be noisy, students are engaged.

"Our model is we expect to see kids working independently in pairs and small groups. I would rarely expect everyone to be doing the same thing," she said.

LaTreisha Washington said her 5-year-old son, Erik, became focused after his class joined the hub.

"Right now, he can actually do the addition and subtraction, and he can do the story problems," she said.

McArthur said overall, students seem to have become more confident knowing they have secure relationships with not just one, but three teachers. She said she's been impressed by their academic growth.

"Ideally, weâd love to have more staff," she said, "but I think we do the kids a good service with what we have."

Contact Ann Zaniewski: 313-222-6594 or azaniewski@freepress.com

— Ann Zaniewski
Detroit Free Press





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