By Terry Dean
District 97 plans to implement a new classroom model for teaching Oak Park kids at the middle schools starting next fall — a model that will group kids of similar academic levels and interests together during class.
District officials want to make sure parents know what's coming well before the start of the school year to avoid the public relations disaster that doomed a similar initiative undertaken five years ago.
The district's "cluster grouping" program will occur in sixth- and seventh-grade classrooms beginning with the 2012-13 school year. Cluster grouping involves sometimes dividing a classroom into smaller groups based on students' academic levels and interest in a certain lesson topic.
Lisa Schwartz, D97's curriculum coordinator, said students will still work on large projects together, but cluster grouping is a way to differentiate instruction. "Ability grouping," however, has been a controversial issue for many parents in the district.
Five years ago, Brooks Middle School, 325 S. Kenilworth, piloted a "flexible grouping" model that involved putting students into a separate class, though some in-classroom grouping did also occur. The program had some parental support. But others opposed separating kids by pulling some out of class. Those pullouts also occurred periodically during the school year, which parents said put undue stress on their kids and caused classroom schedules to be disrupted.
Parents also thought that struggling kids were being unfairly singled-out by being pulled from their classroom. They accused the district of "segregating" students into accelerated classes for high-achieving students and "remedial" classes for at- or below-level learners.
Schwartz said no students will be pulled out of class under cluster grouping and there will be more co-teaching in the classroom under cluster grouping with two instructors in the room working with kids.
Students will remain together in one class, though some differentiation will occur, Schwartz explained. A group of students might require, for example, a different textbook during a classroom lesson under this new model.
"One of the benefits of cluster grouping is having all students working together and learning from each other," she said, emphasizing that there is a difference between cluster and ability grouping. "It's not tracking. Under flexible grouping, students are put in a low group and they don't move. These are truly heterogeneous classrooms under cluster grouping. It's a bit more strategic in grouping kids together with teams."
Schwartz said students won't be grouped based only on their academic level. A social studies lesson on government, for instance, could involve one group of kids forming a mock government as one project and another group writing letters to their legislators. Such a grouping is based more on students' interest in a classroom topic, Schwartz said.
Cluster grouping in eighth-grade classrooms won't occur until 2013, and there are no plans currently to implement the program in the elementary schools.
Schwartz said the district is letting parents know before the school year starts about plans for this fall. What sealed the demise of flexible grouping in 2007 was the district's admitted poor communication with parents about the program. Some families didn't learn of the program's implementation and classroom pullouts until well into that school term. One of those parents was also a member of the school board at the time.
Peter Barber, D97's current board president, was not a member in '07, but he urges the administration to fully communicate with parents this time around. He told Supt. Al Roberts that during a recent D97 school board meeting.
A couple of parents contacted by Wednesday Journal via email last week said there's been no buzz about the program as of yet among families they know, though one parent noted that may be because it's summer and parents' attention lies elsewhere.
Schwartz said the district wants to let parents know about cluster grouping and welcomes their feedback — a parent forum is scheduled for next month. Since flexible grouping largely went down because of parent opposition, Schwartz said the district wants to hear concerns but is firmly committed to implementing cluster grouping and seeing it through.
"There are those concerns, but this is something we believe will benefit all of our students," she said.