Looping: York City schools try to ease transitions
Most kids, no matter what age, are nervous as they start a new school year. They're anxious about being in a new class with people they might not know or about having a new teacher who has different expectations and rules.
Fourth-grader Destiny Walker wasn't nervous at all this year, though.
Walker is in one of the fourth-grade classes at York City schools' Davis K-8 that is practicing "looping." The basic idea is that students will have the same teacher for two years in a row. Third- and fourth-graders who are in looping classrooms begin a modified version of the practice, where they will have the same teacher for certain subjects but a new teacher for others. First- and second-graders stay together as a class with the same teacher the entire year.
Destiny is starting over with third- and fourth-grader teacher Angela Harman, one of approximately 42 teachers who are participating in the pilot program. Last year the district had approximately 10 classrooms that had volunteered for looping.
The goal in slowly implementing the concept is to find any issues and improve the idea before making it districtwide next school year, according to Bill McNelis, the district's academic recovery liaison and one of the leading forces behind the looping program. McNelis led a committee of teachers and administrators that has been involved in coming up with plans and procedures related to looping.
Harman teaches the third- and fourth-graders in English language arts and social studies, while her partner teacher across the hall teaches the same group of kids math and science. Harman has a new third-grade class that she hasn't worked with before this year but still sees her fourth-graders for blocks of time throughout the day.
In the classroom: Harman's third-graders are visibly nervous on the first day of school; still unsure of their new teacher, what she wants from them and how she expects them to behave. Much of the block of time Harman spends with the kids — between 8:10 and 9:30 a.m. — involves going over rules and trying to get students more comfortable with her.
When Harman asks a question, it's often met with silence or timid answers. When she encourages them to speak to each other about a question, they need a little extra coaxing. When she asks them to line up, it takes a little practice.
This changes when Harman's fourth-grade class returns to her room for their English language arts period. Though she has four new faces, she knows most of the kids in her class and exactly where they are academically. While walking them back to her room she asks about their brothers and sisters, their trips over the summer and how their parents are doing.
Destiny said that having Harman as a teacher for a second year in a row is "Fun. I really missed her over the summer."
It's these relationships that make Harman like looping. She's had experience with looping before as a teacher in Spring Grove and decided to jump right in when it was offered in York City School District. The first activity she did with the fourth-graders on the first day of school involved showing them photos from last year, reminiscing on what's different using Venn diagrams and telling them that they are a family.
"We all have our memories from last year; we all trust each other," Harman said. "I really love the idea."
She said a lot of time is saved in not having to spend days going over classroom procedures and rules. Students know that when Harman or anyone is talking that they should be quietly listening and ready to repeat information back. They understand that when she "roller-coasters" it means to wave their arms and say "wooo" in celebration of someone doing something well. Getting everyone to the front of the classroom and sitting "criss-cross applesauce" is a piece of cake.
"I'm excited to see how far I can get them to go," Harman said, explaining that her fourth-grade class will be able to hit the ground running. They'll begin building on their old material as early as that first day, she said.
Imani Cole, another fourth-grade student in Harman's class, said preparing for the school year was easier knowing she was getting Harman again as a teacher in some subjects, but having another new teacher made the year new and exciting as well.
McNelis said the reason for having students switch classrooms for different subjects beginning in third grade is to get them used to having to do it when they're older.
The idea: McNelis said there are a number of pros to having classrooms that loop, all of which he believes will help set younger students up for success as they continue through their educational career.
On the first day of school, teachers already know where each student is academically: what subjects they need help on, where they excel and how they best learn. The teachers also know the students' parents, as well, and have already built a relationship and know how best to communicate with them. McNelis said the whole process of getting students, teachers and parents accustomed to each other can take three weeks, maybe longer.
The district will be instituting this practice in grades one through six at all of the K-8 schools in the district, McNelis said. The concept, coupled with the district's new curriculum and solid teacher collaboration, will help students achieve a more continuous environment. Looping also will allow teachers to become experts at teaching not one but two grade levels.
"To me that's a very, very powerful structure for our students," McNelis said. "The looping itself won’t increase student achievement; it’s the structure that allows a more intensified approach to working with the students."
So far, McNelis said the reaction of the teachers and parents who have participated in looping has been positive. Last year, after the school district's "soft pilot" of the program, a survey was done of all the parents who participated. McNelis said most who responded said looping had improved their child's learning, behavior and attitude toward school.
McNelis said the district will continue to work out kinks. He also said there are processes in place in case there is a student and teacher combination that doesn't mesh well, which does happen on occasion. After following many different steps to try to address any issues the teacher might have with the student or their guardians, the district might decide to place that student with a different teacher rather than looping again.
"We're just so blessed here with a superintendent that has allowed the committee to think outside the box and has supported us the whole way," McNelis said. "The chief recovery officer has done the same thing, and the board has been very positive."