'Platoon' teaching comes to Walla Walla elementary school

Instead of a single teacher all day, a new system has young Blue Ridge students move from class to class.

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Blue Ridge Elementary teacher Janifer Sams handles the flow of students from Amy Hartford's class as they head into her recently vacated room for science studies. This is part of the school's "platooning" for 3rd through 5th graders. January 31, 2011

WALLA WALLA -- At Blue Ridge Elementary, "platooning" is now part of the daily routine.

Through platooning, or departmentalized instruction, children leave their homeroom teacher during the day to learn core subjects from other teachers.

"The philosophy behind it is to dig deeper, versus going surface," said Blue Ridge Principal Kim Doepker. "This affords the opportunity for teachers to work in their expertise, in an area they are passionate about."

Traditionally in elementary schools, teachers cover several subjects in their classrooms, and students are with them all day. Those subjects include math, reading, writing, science, social studies and health.

Platooning was introduced this year at Blue Ridge in the third, fourth and fifth grades. Doepker, who is in her second year at the school, began advocating for platooning last year, and asked her staff if they'd commit to the switch. After teachers visited Columbia Elementary School in Burbank, where platooning has been in place for some years, they felt confident in the positive effect platooning could have on their own students.

"We went to Burbank and saw what they are doing, and immediately said, we're doing this," said Janifer Sams, one of two fourth-grade teachers who now specializes in science.

At Blue Ridge now, the third, fourth and fifth-graders -- about 150 students in all -- leave their homeroom teacher during the day to learn math, science and social studies from other teachers. The three subjects are split between the school's six upper-grade teachers. Reading is taught in the homeroom, and the two social studies teachers also teach writing and health.

About five months in, and following an initial period of adjustment, the teachers have drawn an overall positive view of the model. They site better collaboration with each other, a better understanding of individual students' needs, and a refreshing change from the demands of teaching all core subjects on their own.

"It would be really hard to go back to the old way," said Corey Hobbs, a fifth-grade teacher specializing in math.

Each teacher now sees about 75 children in one day. The teachers have their own 25 homeroom students, and then teach two other classes in a day. Hobbs, for example, teaches reading and math to his own students, then teaches math to the other fifth-grade classroom and one of the fourth-grade classes.

Yet the demand of teaching more children is regarded positively among the teachers.

"There are three adults seeing that child within one day, versus just one," said Kristen Garcia, a fourth-grade teacher whose specialty is science.

"And our homeroom kids do feel like our homeroom kids, because we're with them two hours a day," she added.

Platooning is also guaranteeing attention to subjects that would often get pushed aside, with higher stakes placed on reading, writing and math comprehension.

"Science was one of those things that we got to do maybe two days a week," Sams said. Through platooning, students are getting an hour of science instruction each day.

For the teachers, focusing on one core area is helping them refine their teaching. There are also two teachers assigned to each subject, which allows more direct collaboration.

"By the end of the day I feel like I've got it," said Phyllis Garanzuay, a third-grade teacher who specializes in social studies, writing and health.

Criticisms of platooning center mainly focus on denying young children the stability and comfort found in having the same teacher all day, and the consequences that might come from that. Blue Ridge is the only district elementary school currently using platooning.

But the effect on students so far seems to be positive, as well, the teachers said.

"They're so jazzed about what we're teaching," Sams said.

"And they're moving once an hour, so they don't get bored," Garcia added.

By allowing movement between classes, there is also the opportunity to move children up or down in subjects within grades, depending on their abilities. A fourth-grader with fifth-grade math skills, for example, could be easily placed in a fifth-grade math class.

Allowing children with advanced skills to thrive, and enriching those who may need more help, was a key selling point of the new model.

"We're not going to let the walls or grade levels dictate what kids need," Doepker said.

Maria P. Gonzalez can be reached at mariagonzalez@wwub.com or 526-8317.

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