Nothing saps a community like faltering schools.
Test scores get reported and repeated online. They become part of political campaigns (as they did this year).
Families move out, or don’t move in. Those who value education decide to leave, and when they go, the downward drain swirls faster.
Meanwhile, pressure mounts. School boards divide along partisan lines, and members get distracted by silly squabbles.
What to do?
You try something different. And at Parker-Varney Elementary School, teachers and the former principal believe they’ve found a way out of this city’s school funk.
The term (at least for now) is called grade banding, which refers to grouping and regrouping children into small bands, depending on their ability to handle the lesson at hand.
• The concept entails some Montessori school aspects — the freedom for a student to move around in a classroom, and combined classrooms such as grades 1-2, grades 2-3, etc.
• It borrows from and adjusts the increasingly criticized concept of leveling. The bands (note the new term) reflect a student’s academic skills in any subject, but unlike a leveled class, a student moves from band to band effortlessly.
• It relies on technology. During my visit this week, about 15 students studied independently on education software such as iReady or Zearn, their heads haloed by headphones and their gaze affixed to Chromebooks. Meanwhile, their progress is compiled and fed digitally to teachers.
• And what would a new system be without a new fad? The restructuring was prompted by a grant from NG2, an organization that wants to eliminate traditional grades in education. (NG stands for no grades.)
“No one’s falling behind. No one’s getting overwhelmed. It seems to be working pretty well,” said Kelly Robichaud, who has one daughter in a 2-3 classroom and another in a 3-4 classroom.
“The happiness I see in my daughter is incredible. She says ‘I don’t have to sit there and learn the same thing over and over again,’” said Kim Dittbenner, a Parker-Varney parent of a third-grader.
Dittbenner said she thinks the program is keeping families in the West Side; when she and her husband went to buy a house this year, none were available in the Parker-Varney district.
This is Parker-Varney’s second year with the program. It wouldn’t have happened without Amy Allen, the principal who was elevated last month to assistant superintendent for elementary instruction. Allen found grants to train teachers in grade banding. She spent a summer structuring lessons to fit the minutiae in the Manchester Academic Standards.
She oversaw its first year and now is its biggest advocate.
“Good instruction will never be a fad,” Allen said. “This is about the whole child and knowing that every child learns at a different rate.”
Compare that to the traditional system, she said, when a child born on Sept. 30 is placed in a different grade from a child born a day later on Oct. 1.
If anything symbolizes the Parker Varney system it is Gina Gardner at work in her combined 2-3 class. In a corner of her classroom, she sits at a whiteboard, ringed by six students at desks. She uses the board to explain the basics of multiplication.
The lesson is quick — 15 minute at the most. The students are engaged, because of the Goldilocks nature of the lesson — not too hard, not too easy, just right. When that lesson ends, another band has its turn.
They’re allowed to snack and work as teams. Too much independence can be challenging. Kids are kids, and Allen acknowledges they can use the computer to goof off, for example by swapping emojis. But any good computer network monitors everything (and the Parker-Varney one does). Transgressions are subject to correction and discipline.
“They always talk,” said third-grader Colten Berry about the independent work. A teacher will ring a bell if they get too loud, he said.
With all the switching and independent study, Gardner said the emphasis is on subject matter, not grade level.
Were she teaching a traditional third-grade class, Gardner said it could involve as many as eight different bands, anywhere from pre-kindergarten to fifth grade.
“In a 30-minute lesson, after 10, 15 minutes I’d lose half of them,” Gardner said.
Early results have been impressive. Last year, the percentage of second-grade students reading at proficiency rate went from 27 percent at the beginning of the year to 77 percent at year’s end. Third-graders went from 75 percent to 84 percent.
Allen said the third-grade scores on the statewide Smarter Balanced assessment were not as impressive. They showed only 27 percent at reading proficiency, but that was an increase from the previous year.
Meanwhile, Allen said trips to the principal’s office dropped by one-third last year. And in other schools that have adopted banding, special education numbers are down, as is the number of paraprofessionals.
Some words of caution. A wholesale shift to banding in Manchester schools won’t be quick or cheap. Allen guesses it would cost $75,000 to implement the system citywide. It wouldn’t work without Title I (two Parker-Varney teachers funded by the federal government) and City Year (motivated volunteers just out of college).
Any restructuring comes with its struggles. An effort last year to combine three grades into a single classroom proved too unwieldy.
The combined classrooms involve two teachers becoming a team. Personality clashes are inevitable. Some teachers transferred out of the school.
“We’re figuring out what works and what doesn’t work. It can be frustrating,” said Kelly Callanan, a fourth/fifth grade teacher. “Nothing’s perfect. You learn from your mistakes. That’s what’s exciting.”