Parents unhappy about having two grade levels in classroom

Blend classes one of South Ridge Elementary School's strategies for dealing with booming population, enrollment

By Adam Littman, Columbian Staff Writer

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The week before her daughter was to start fifth grade at South Ridge Elementary School, Tracey Cox received a voice mail letting her know her daughter was being put in a blend class made up of 28 fourth- and fifth-graders.

She and her husband researched how those classes worked and weren’t happy that Lily Cox, 10, was going to be a part of one. They talked to various people in the district who assured them Lily wouldn’t fall behind. After the first few days of school, Tracey Cox still wasn’t happy with the blend class, which was led by a certified substitute who had previously never taught a blend class.

“To have 28 of them with all these other obstacles against them, it doesn’t seem fair to those students,” Tracey Cox said.

After a few days of Lily coming home upset and telling her parents friends in other classes were doing more work than her, Tracey and her husband pulled Lily out of the district. She recently enrolled in Character and Academics for the Marketplace Academy in Battle Ground. Cox has two other children at South Ridge and said she’s not sure what she’s going to do with them next year, or if Lily will return to Ridgefield in the future.

“It’s been really hard for the whole family,” Tracey Cox said. “She loves her school. It’s the only one she’s ever gone to. She misses her friends. Part of her really wants to go back to South Ridge.”

Cox said that before this, her family never had any issues with the district or South Ridge staff, and they loved the education their children received there.

But she and her husband were worried Lily would fall behind in a blend class, which are being used more frequently in Ridgefield to deal with the city’s booming population and a school district that increased its enrollment by 12 percent, roughly 290 students, since the first day of school last school year. South Ridge has increased its population the most since last year, adding about 110 kids to bring its enrollment into the 290 range.

“Blends are a new thing for the Ridgefield community and Ridgefield schools,” South Ridge principal Todd Graves said. “It’s not a thing they’ve had to do in the past. I had a couple of parents at the beginning of last year who had some difficulty with it.”

Last year, South Ridge had a blend class of second- and third-graders and another of fifth- and sixth-graders.

Cox wondered why the district seemed so unprepared for the beginning of the year, but Ridgefield can’t turn away students looking to enroll who move into the district.

“They have a legal right to attend the Ridgefield School District,” Ridgefield Superintendent Nathan McCann said. “This is only our third year as a growing district. Last year was relatively stagnant because there weren’t as many homes on the markets. This is the beginning of an epic stretch of home development in the Ridgefield School District. We’ve been hiring earlier and earlier as we’ve become more confident of the growth.”

While students enrolled in the Ridgefield School District, the students didn’t raise enrollment enough in fourth or fifth grade to justify hiring another teacher for one grade or the other, leading to the blend class, McCann said. A permanent teacher for this year’s blend class was hired, and started Friday.

To deal with the growth, Ridgefield has added mobile classrooms to all four of its schools. District officials have also been vocal about putting a bond up for vote in February, which will most likely ask for north of $90 million.

The district set up a Capital Facilities Advisory Committee to go over Ridgefield’s needs and come up with a plan for the future. During a presentation to the school board in May, committee members unveiled plans for the future, one of which saw the district more than doubling the number of schools in Ridgefield.

“This situation of overcrowding is only going to get worse,” Tracey Cox said. “They have a long-term plan, if it even passes, but that doesn’t help the students now.”

Graves said that while parents might be skeptical about blend classes, he thinks they provide unique opportunities for students. He also said he caps his blend classes, so if more students join the district, they won’t be placed in a blend class once the year starts. This year’s blend class of 28 students is the second-smallest class size of any fourth- or fifth-grade class at South Ridge.

Raechel Cowell, a fifth-grade teacher at South Ridge, taught the fifth- and sixth-grade blend class last year, her first time instructing a class like that. It was her first time teaching elementary school, as she previously taught middle school in Ridgefield and in Oregon. She found out about the blend class about a week before the year.

“At first, I was staying up to midnight every single night for weeks,” she said. “Before, that wasn’t the case. I wanted to plan everything out and map everything out. It was a lot of late nights, and I think that might be what parents are worried about, that people won’t put in the work.”

Once she got in a groove, Cowell said, she enjoyed teaching the blend.

“The thing that was most appealing was to see how younger and older students worked together,” she said. “It was a beautiful thing. It helped both grade levels gain friendships. Mostly, kids stick to their own grade levels.”

To teach the class, Cowell said, she taught everyone the same language-arts lessons. For other subjects, she would go over topics with the whole group, and then let them do some independent work. While one group is working independently, she would instruct the other.

In all classes, some kids are at grade level while others are behind and some are ahead, Cowell said. So, it wasn’t much of a stretch to teach kids at two grade levels.

“We’re supposed to differentiate, to come up with plans to make sure all students are learning at a pace that works for them,” Cowell said.

“I had to do it every single day. You want to meet the needs of students and challenge them. But you also have to give support to kids who aren’t at grade level.”

Cowell said it also gave a chance for older kids who might have struggled the previous year to relearn a lesson that caused them trouble. Conversely, it also gave younger students a chance to hear about what they might learn next year, or to actually jump ahead and learn it.