Multiage classroom energizes Agnor-Hurt

The traditional public school classroom — with children in the same grade seated at their desks — has become a thing of the past for 120 students at Agnor-Hurt Elementary.

In the school’s multiage classroom, now in its second year, students in different grades work together on projects that keep the 7,800-square-foot space buzzing with conversation and movement.

Agnor-Hurt faculty say the classroom, with its more hands-off approach to education, is running smoothly, and may have contributed to the school’s significant improvement on state Standards of Learning tests last year.

“We have witnessed increased levels of student achievement, a high level of student motivation, and a high level of teacher efficacy,” said Michele Castner, principal of Agnor-Hurt, an Albemarle County public school.

Adam Mohr, leader of the multiage teaching team, said it can take some time for students to get used to the size of the room and its constant activity.

“Most kids have adapted and adjusted beautifully,” he said.

The 120 students in the classroom are divided into three “pods,” each taught by a pair of teachers. The grade levels in each pod will be adjusted annually to let students have the same teachers for up to three years. This year there is a pod that ranges from kindergarten through second grade, one from first to third grade and one from third to fifth grade.

The pair of teachers assigned to each pod sorts their students into groups based on academic proficiency.

“We give them a basic idea for a project, and see where they go with it.”

Michael Thornton

Drew Craft and Michael Thornton’s third-, fourth- and fifth-grade pupils are in groups named after inhabitants of the “Star Wars” universe: Ewoks, Padawans and Jedi. Thornton said students often change groups throughout the year.

“It would be easy to keep them in the same group, but we have to move them all the time,” Thornton said. “They do better working at their own pace.”

Teachers present several short lessons to their pod each day. Students spend the rest of their time in the classroom working on projects with minimal supervision.

“We give them a basic idea for a project, and see where they go with it,” Thornton said.

Sometimes the projects are directly related to a recent lesson or a book the students have read. Other projects are more open-ended.

Last month, some of Craft’s students successfully resurrected an old carousel slide projector he had picked up at an estate sale. Craft said the children were surprised by the complexity of the antiquated device: “It makes them have a greater appreciation for just turning on a computer.”

Students who stay in the multiage classroom for the duration of elementary school are likely to repeat some units from year to year. Mohr said that he and his colleagues “make kids go deeper, and do something more challenging” when they return to topics they already have studied.

Teachers administer quarterly assessments to track the students’ progress. Students also have frequent opportunities to show their mastery of a topic by teaching younger peers.

Agnor-Hurt gives its multiage teachers a day each month to map out their lessons and create individualized learning plans for their students. Regular substitutes fill in on those days to keep the students on schedule.

“We’re after the ‘whole child’ [approach], but we’re also after smart instruction,” said Castner.

In the 1970s, many of the new schools being built in America were designed with large, “open” classrooms such as Agnor-Hurt’s, but most eventually were converted into enclosed classrooms. Many studies of open classrooms found that they could produce excessive noise and visual distractions.

Linda Insalaco, a math instructor at Henley Middle School, taught in one of Orange County’s open classrooms in the 1980s. She said the level of noise in the room made it difficult for students to focus on their work.

“… Multiage, open classrooms are suited to smaller settings — not to our big schools,” Insalaco said. “There are children who need structure, quiet and order, and sometimes we forget about those kids.”

English language learners and students with autism and learning disorders are known to be particularly vulnerable to the effects of noise on speech perception. At Agnor-Hurt, specialists offer support for these students by monitoring them in the multiage classroom, and pulling them out for one-on-one interventions when necessary.

One area of the multiage classroom is closed off with curtains to create a quieter space with less visual stimulation. Mohr said students who are acutely sensitive to sound are encouraged to use noise-cancelling headphones during louder times of the day.

Stantec architect Camilo Llorens Bearman, the lead designer of the Agnor-Hurt classroom, said his firm and the school wanted to avoid recreating the open classroom of the 1970s. “Everyone thought that was a failure,” Bearman said.

“The architecture needed to respond in a specific way, and the teaching and learning needed to respond in a specific way … A project-based, individualized teaching model doesn’t require teachers to shout,” Bearman said.

Students are placed in Agnor-Hurt’s multiage classroom by a random lottery. Although some parents choose to opt out of the program, there is a waiting list for admission. To provide more students with a similar experience, the school removed a wall between two rooms last summer to combine second- and third-graders in a single class.

“The word is spreading through the children and their parents about the success of this multiage classroom,” Castner said. “It’s been incredibly rewarding. I would want to see it in every school.”