A teacher at The Juniper School in Durango might help a student in the morning, but in the afternoon, the assistance might come from a classmate, maybe a grade ahead or another student who has a particular knack for writing or math.
This year, the school has moved to a mixed-age classroom model with kindergartners and first-graders in primary classrooms; second- and third-graders in the intermediary classrooms; and fourth- and fifth-graders sharing the upper elementary classrooms.
“We did research on best practices, and mixed-age classrooms created a more cooperative rather than a competitive atmosphere,” said Carrie Lyons, second- and third-grade Juniper teacher who served on the committee that looked at mixed-age classrooms. “We also found a lot more kids were teaching kids, and for those who were teaching, it was really reinforcing their skills.”
Monday was the first day of classes at The Juniper School.
Noah Houk, 9, a fourth-grader, the son of Heather and Wayne Houk; and Judah Bromley, 10, a fifth-grader, the son of Kristin Moore, were helping to list different class jobs and define them. Both students enjoy having friends from different classes.
Noah said fifth-graders “are nice,” and Judah said, “You get to meet people of different ages.”
Mixed-age classrooms have always been a part of the school’s charter, said Juniper Head of School Katie McCullough.
The school delayed using mixed-age classrooms last year, the school’s first year of operation, she said, because relationships among teachers, students and parents all had to be built before the full benefits of the concept could be garnered.
The Juniper School, which currently has 136 students and a waiting list, was in the development and planning stages for four years. The 2018-19 school year is its second year of operation.
The charter school, located above Big Picture High School, 215 E. 12th St., uses a Montessori-inspired curriculum of student-driven learning that McCullough said gives kids a role in guiding their learning.
Math, reading, writing and practical life-skill learning stations are in each class with tubs filled with various lessons, and students are given time to explore the tubs based on their interests.
“Students pursue what interests them. They learn based on their interests and their skills, not their age,” McCullough said. “We look at: What are your strengths and what are your needs. That guides our mission of providing appropriate instruction with fidelity.”
Student-driven learning creates increased responsibility among students, who are also guided by student learning contracts that involve the student, their parents and their teachers.
Another benefit of mixed-aged classrooms, McCullough said, is that it puts two teachers in a classroom. “It’s an educational shift.”
“It’s a real benefit to have two highly trained teachers in each classroom,” she said. “Teachers can work in loops. They learn where students are in their skills and development, and they can work in small groups.”
Every year, one of each class’s teachers will move to the next age group, so that one teacher already has an established relationship with incoming students.
It means each year one teacher knows what skills students have been exposed to, and they already have relationships to build upon, McCullough said.
Two teachers mean the pair can take the time to devote special resources when students need special attention and instruction in subjects, and it allows students to review areas where they are struggling or move quickly to more difficult skills if they are excelling.
“With two teachers, we have the time to teach or enrich,” McCullough said. “This school has a really happy buzz during the day of kids going where they need to.”