Academic grouping of students in the classroom set to begin in Oak Park schools this fall

'Clustering' is coming to the middle schools

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By Terry Dean

Staff reporter

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.

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Posted: August 30th, 2012 1:43 AM

Has the district had anything else to say about this? Things have been surprisingly quiet about this topic.


Posted: July 30th, 2012 9:58 AM

@Lucy. BTW,"love and support" comment was based upon experiences and observations of kids/families going thru the middle schools and then high school. I knew A LOT of very bright kids who struggled in different ways during this challenging period of "growing up." I learned a lot from others - what to do and not to do. "Tiger Moms" were the ones that I learned mostly what "not to do." And I'd listen to and work with the teachers - esp the experienced ones. If they are questioning "Cluster"....?


Posted: July 30th, 2012 9:46 AM

@Lucy. Just finished 4th grade? That's actually what I wrote in my draft, but changed it. The "moving to the mean" I was referring to is that the other kids start to catch up - not that your daughter begins to decline. Julian/Brooks and then OPRF will likely be an eye-opener for you - esp OPRF. My children were off the charts on everything - but in OP and RF, believe it or not, it's not uncommon. One had a friend from IN stay the night on SAT - who is going to Harvard. Been there - done that.

Just Asking  

Posted: July 30th, 2012 6:13 AM

@Lucy, good teachers have always differentiated in the classroom. My son, who excelled at reading and math, was discreetly given challenge questions in math and extra words in spelling. Now that the district is formally dividing the classrooms only makes me think that there will be a more pronounced divide between the "dummy" table and the "smart" table in the classroom.

Lucy from Oak Park  

Posted: July 29th, 2012 10:23 PM

She is going into 5th grade, U. No, she's not "moving to the mean"; in fact, her abilities are becoming more pronounced as she gets older. For the record, I am loving and supportive which means I recognise that some children need more rigorous challenge than others.


Posted: July 29th, 2012 10:10 PM

@Lucy. I'd like to hear from some teachers on this subject. "Perfect spelling scores" and "reading at least 4 grades above her grade" and you want something new from D97? Why? I'm guessing that your child is in a low grade - 2nd? If true, you are likely going to soon witness an "evening out" as, pun intended, the kids start to "cluster" - move to the mean. I wish that I could speak with you personally - I'm done with "the journey" and finished the process. Support/love and let things play out!

Lucy from Oak Park  

Posted: July 29th, 2012 9:42 PM

Don't get what you're saying here, Unfortunately. Let me give a concrete example. My child got perfect spelling scores last year in the regular classroom. Where was the growth in that? Through no fault of her own, she happens to be reading at least 4 grade levels above her grade. I'm assuming that in a cluster grouping, she might be introduced to vocabulary that would be new to her, not words she already knows.


Posted: July 27th, 2012 12:28 PM

@Lucy. Your comment suggests that prior to all of these "changes," D97 was having their students "learn curriculum she (they) mastered many years ago" and that they were unable to reach "the appropriate level." OPRF just had 2 pages in both papers listing names/pictures of top graduates. I know a lot of them - they spent 9 yrs in D97 and are now attending top schools. You should therefore be more concerned about D97 "changing" things which prevent your daughter from doing the same as these kids!

Lucy from Oak Park  

Posted: July 27th, 2012 10:27 AM

So many petty comments. Thank you, District 97, for giving my child the chance to get a year's worth of growth, instead of having her learn curriculum she mastered many years ago. Equal opportunity means that every child gets to learn whatever he/she can, once he/she has reached the appropriate level.

Interested parent  

Posted: July 19th, 2012 11:11 PM

Questions for District 97: What criteria will be used for determining the makeup of the cluster groups? Will the math curriculum change from what was described to incoming middle school parents at the spring orientation? Is this a step toward implementing the IB program?


Posted: July 19th, 2012 12:55 PM

Wow, common sense finally rules and without some outrageous price tag attached to it. I applaud District 97. Best thing they have done in years.


Posted: July 19th, 2012 12:54 PM

Wow, common sense finally rules and without some outrageous price tag attached to it. I applaud District 97. Best thing they have done in years.


Posted: July 19th, 2012 12:12 PM

This is segregation. You can try to make it sound pretty by using another word but what it amounts to is the same.


Posted: July 18th, 2012 9:39 PM

@Dad. Per my kids, they aren't distracted by the groups you highlighted - just the kids who are frequently verbally disruptive/loud. I've seen how the teachers dealt with them - immediately sent them out of the room - no nonsense. It taught my kids, plus their peers, how to focus positively even with distractions - and also a thing or two about "the real world." The vast majority just tune them out. No harm - no foul.


Posted: July 18th, 2012 1:33 PM

Will one of the "interest" groups be kids who like to bring weapons to school? Or, maybe they'll slice it even finer than that: knife wielders, gun wielders (encompassing all types of guns such as hand, rifle, and flare); and fist wielders.

Violet Aura  

Posted: July 18th, 2012 12:57 PM

Cont. that their kids were being singled out due to race or ethnicity. And unfortunately, SPED also is including students with ED/BD, which may or may not have an additional LD component. So disruptive students (who cannot necessarily control themselves to the same degree as their counterparts) are allowed in the same class and take up more of the educator's time. I don't think mainstreaming has been very helpful for either the SPED student or those on the regular track.

Violet Aura  

Posted: July 18th, 2012 12:54 PM

This is strange because they are contradicting themselves. "Ability" implies skill, not interest. So how can they claim that they are not grouping according to abilities soley? The reason there are even pull-outs to begin with is the push for mainstreaming. It would appear to me (based upon my experience at District 97 in the '70s and later at Dist. 200) that SPED students have increased. I also know that minorities are overrepresented in this group and I wonder if certain parents felt *TBC*

Ralph H. Lee  

Posted: July 18th, 2012 12:38 PM

A primary result of this is the fact that only this year, after "the achievement gap" was acknowledged nineteen years ago, have we been able to begin a program wherein all entering students' reading abilities are assessed, and appropriate reading skills help is offered (and perhaps required.) I believe that the D97 program must be constantly monitored to assure that every action results in individual learning needs of students are being met. Laxity can result in the opposite happening.

Ralph H. Lee  

Posted: July 18th, 2012 12:25 PM

Over time, this program at D200 has evolved to do a better job of trying to better serve the educational needs of individual students, but progress has been slow and sporadic. Change has been consistently opposed by a segment of our residents, who seem to believe strongly that a primary function of our district is to assure parents of "bright" kids that their children will not be subjected to the presence of "kids who just con't, or don't want to learn".

Ralph H. Lee from Oak Park  

Posted: July 18th, 2012 12:11 PM

I support this new program, although I do so with a great deal of caution and a little suspicion. I support it because I have learned to have a certain amount of trust in the the current board and administrative team. My suspicion arises from my experience with Distict 200's version of a similar type of "ability grouping" over the past thirty years, which resulted in about a third of our students being subjected to a program of lowered expectations. (To be continued.)

Just Wondering  

Posted: July 18th, 2012 6:27 AM

So, is this model coming out of Shaker Heights, too? Funny how Mr. Sindelar was vilified over this a few years ago. By the way, there is no one left from that pilot, so it's easy to make this sound so much better.

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