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Multiage class harkens back to days gone by

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Heidi Swetlik has been asking to teach a multiage class for years - this year it was approved.

"When Mike Ballard started at Paperjack last year, I met with him and planted the seed," she said. "In the spring we surveyed the parents to gauge interest. I think I needed eight or nine families from each grade and ended up getting 16-20 families from each grade."

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Swetlik's class at Paperjack Elementary, made up of both first- and second-graders, will be taught in a way that is similar to how students were taught in one-room school houses years ago, she said.

"In fact, I'm not even going to call them first-graders or second-graders," she said.

Instead, students will be split into groups based on their ability.

"We'll have a lot of flex-grouping," she said. "Math will be the trickiest but I'm trying to stay open minded."

Swetlik said she's not too worried because her teaching style already reflects the skills she'll need to teach a multiage class.

For example, instead of having all her students read at the same level, Swetlik identifies each student's level and works from there.

"There will be a lot of pre-testing," she said. "While I work with one group the other group will be working on something else meaningful."

Swetlik became interested in the multiage concept after looping one of her seond grade classes several years ago.

That year she taught an autistic second-grader. The next year, at the request of his parents, she looped her class to third grade to keep him in her class.

"It was an amazing experience," she said. "I really saw the value in that."

Multiage takes looping one step further.

A multiage class groups students by ability and learning style.

In a self-contained class it's more of a staircase concept. Students achieve one set of goals and then they move up to the next level, she said.

"This gives them more time to get from point A to B," she said.

Each student in Swetlik's class volunteered to be there, she said.

"I was at the mercy of parent interest," she said.

In fact, all of her second-graders are students she taught last year as first-graders.

"That's nice because I already know half of my families," she said.

The number of families interested in the multiage class surprised Swetlik, but also reinforced her idea that families like options.

"It really shows that parents appreciate different programs," she said. "Minnesota already has a lot of multiage classrooms. It's about time we got on the band wagon."

For now, the multiage class is a one-year project, she said.

"I'm not sure if I'll get to do it again next year," she said. "What I'd really like is to teach a multiage looping class of first-, second- and third-graders. That's my dream."

Swetlik said she hopes to have a lot of support in her classroom between parent volunteers, STEP workers and high school students.

While the program is new to New Richmond, it's not necessarily new to New Richmond's staff, Swetlik said.

Andy Hoeppner, Starr Elementary's new principal, previously taught at a multiage elementary school, she said. Amy Fiege, a new teacher at Paperjack, also previously taught a multiage class, she said.

Swetlik said the multiage class is really beneficial to students because it helps prepare them for the real world.

"Think about it," she said. "We don't always work with people the same age as us. It's actually kind of silly that kids are split up just because they share similar birthdays."

Swetlik said the class' success depends on how supportive other staff is.

"This really is a collaborative effort," she said. "The other departments - special services, music, art ... everyone has to be on board. So far it's been great."

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Jackie Grumish
Jackie Grumish has been a reporter with the New Richmond News since 2008. She holds degrees in journalism and fine art from Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, Ill. Before coming to New Richmond, Jackie worked as the city government reporter at a daily newspaper in Aberdeen, S.D. 
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