Widmyer Elementary adds split kindergarten/first grade classroom

by Kate Evans

Some Widmyer Elementary kindergarten and first grade students will have a new experience this year with a split kindergarten/first grade classroom.

Widmyer Elementary Principal Rhett Beckman said that the decision was made during personnel planning season last school year to hire a split kindergarten/first grade teacher for the school.

The move was made so the school would be in state compliance. Widmyer was close to capacity in both kindergarten and first grade students for the 2019-2020 school year. It is the county’s largest elementary school.

The decision was based on projected enrollment numbers for Widmyer for this school year. Beckman said the state only allows 25 students per classroom in first grade.

He said the split grade class will be two grade levels taught in the same classroom. The kindergartners in the split grade classroom will still be getting the kindergarten curriculum and the first graders in the classroom will be still getting the first grade curriculum.

Teachers are trained in k-5 elementary education in college and don’t get any special training to teach split grades, Beckman said. They look for someone who is able to multitask and handle multiple things at the same time to teach a split class.

Beckman said there was no special treatment in how students were assigned to the split kindergarten/first grade classroom. Student were chosen for the class the same way they are assigned to all Widmyer classrooms — staff works their way down the list of students alphabetically.

Beckman said that the split grade model has been used at several county schools. Split grade classrooms were successfully used at Greenwood Elementary long-term and also at Paw Paw Schools and Great Cacapon Elementary.

“A lot of school districts use them,” he said.

Parent concerns

Parent Angela Yost asked at the August 6 school board meeting why the Widmyer split kindergarten/first grade class was created and how it’s going to benefit kids.

Yost expressed concerns to the school board members about kids that could’ve failed last year and needed help. She also said she’s not being allowed to opt her child out of the split grade class.

Yost has said other parents of kindergarten and first graders at Widmyer had similar questions about how the class would work, and why the school hadn’t communicated more details about it to parents.

School Superintendent Kristen Tuttle said that split grade classes were a model in smaller schools and that teaching both kindergarten and first grade curriculum in one is very manageable.

The split kindergarten/first grade class puts an extra adult in the classroom as an aide is assigned to the teacher. Kindergarten classrooms typically have aides.

Tuttle felt that the extra educational support the class will have is a bonus plus the split grade class keeps class sizes down for everyone at the school.

Beckman said younger students will have the older kids as peer models. Hearing the older grade level’s curriculum will expose the kindergarteners to what will be happening in first grade.

He noted that if any first graders missed a skill in kindergarten then they’ll get to hear it again, which will help them close the gaps now. Being able to catch up on missing skills is one of the benefits of a split grade class.

In this class and all classes, when kids are excelling and exceeding standards, teachers adjust the class work and modify the curriculum, Beckman said. If kids are struggling, teachers also modify the curriculum and go over the skills that were missed. All supports are in place in this split grade classroom, like all the other Widmyer classrooms.

Beckman said that the school is working with any parents that are upset about their child being assigned to the split grade classroom.