Many schools around the country are experimenting with combined classes this year, The Press-Enterprise, which covers inland Southern California, reports. At one such school, Temecula LuiseÃ±o Elementary, fifteen first graders and fifteen second graders share the same teacher and a classroom — even for periods such as math when they are taught separately.
The Riverside County school district now has 32 combined education classes, a 100% increase over the year before. At another Riverside district, Murrieta, the number of combination classes more than tripled over the past year to 35.
District officials say that combining classes is a necessity due to budget cuts. School districts can no longer afford the payroll numbers that would allow them to put a teacher in front of every grade's classroom. When staff numbers are reduced, mainly through attrition and retirement, schools can no longer afford to replace teachers; combination classrooms are an inevitable result.
"It's not what we want, but it's what we have to work with," said Char Gollogly, director of curriculum and instruction for the Murrieta Valley Unified School District.
The classes are more work for teachers, who have to plan for and teach two sets of lessons. Combinations also can be a difficult to sell to parents, who worry that their students aren't going to learn as much or might get overlooked in class.
There are education researchers, however, who paint a much less gloomy picture of combined-grade classes. There have been studies that show that combining grades actually provides academic benefit via exposure to a more rigorous curriculum for younger students and an opportunity to act as mentors and tutors for the older kids.
For those who aren't convinced, however, there is some good news. Despite the anecdotal evidence, California education officials say there hasn't been an overall increase in combined grade classrooms in the state.
Combination classes have long been a part of school life, simply because students don't show up to school in even class sets, said Jodi McClay, assistant superintendent for educational support services for the Temecula Valley Unified School District. But in years past, a Temecula school with several classes of 26 or 27 students would have been left alone. This year, the classes are being reconfigured so all of the classes reach 30 students, even if that means creating combinations.
McClay calls it "staffing tighter."
There's limited research on how combining classes impacts student achievement, but in addition to the studies showing benefits, there are nearly as many saying that students suffer when their classrooms host a number of different grades. In the 1990s a number of research papers reported that kids in combined-grade classrooms underperformed their single-grade peers. More recent results, however, seems to be pointing to the exact opposite conclusion:
A 2010 analysis found first-graders in combination classes performed the same as their peers in single-grade classes in English. In math, students in the combination classes performed slightly better.