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Grades blend in NY Mills’ first ever combined class

Dustin Geiser, uses ­­­small-group activities to meet the needs of his combined fourth and fifth grade class. Elizabeth Huwe/FOCUS

When planning for this school year began, administrators and teachers at New York Mills Elementary School faced a unique challenge.

There would be two class sections for the fourth and fifth grades, but with the number of incoming students, those classes would be crowded.

However, there were not quite enough students (or teachers) to create a third section for each grade.

And so, it was decided to add just one class: a split, or combo, class, with students from both grades.

It’s a first in known New York Mills School history.

 “It was the way the numbers fell,” said elementary principal Judith Brockway.

“We were limited, because we have the number of teachers we have,” explained Brockway, and there are only so many classrooms.

Teacher Dustin Geiser, who graduated from New York Mills himself, was picked to teach the combo group.

“We knew we only had Dustin for half the day,” said Brockway, since Geiser also teaches seventh grade math. They had to decide what would be the best use of his time.

“It’s not like we’re only teaching to the fifth grade standards, or only teaching to the fourth,” said Brockway. “He (Geiser) is able to differentiate his instruction, so everyone is getting what they need.”

“My colleagues have been an amazing support system for me,” Geiser wrote in an email to the Focus. “I am really lucky to be able to have four team members, instead of the two that every other grade level has.”

“One of the biggest challenges is that not a lot of people have taught a class like this before,” Geiser added.

Even though a split-grade class is rather uncommon, it seems to be going well for Geiser and his students.

“The parents have been overwhelmingly supportive of this,” said Geiser. “I think that they realize this is a unique situation for their child to face adversity at a young age. As long as their academic needs are being met, it is an opportunity to see some different challenges.”

“Everyone has been very positive,” said Brockway. “I have not heard one bad thing so far. I think it’s a reflection of Mr. Geiser that he’s able to do it.”

She continued, “It takes more planning, but in the long run, I know the kids are getting what they need. They seem to love it and the parents also seem very happy with it.”

Geiser’s students gave their mixed-class, and teacher, a unanimous thumbs-up.

Most of all, the students said they enjoyed getting to bond with other kids they hadn’t spent time with before.

Another favorite feature of their class is the extra in-class work time.

“In all of the other classes I’ve been in, we’ve had lots of homework,” said one student. But now, he can usually finish assignments during class time.

“Ideally, we would have three teachers per grade, with small class sizes,” said Brockway. “But that’s not always possible. I feel like we made the best decision we could have made.”

Next year, depending on how enrollment numbers shift and change, a split-grade class might be used again.

“I wouldn’t be against it … with the way it worked out this year,” said Brockway.

If there is another split, Geiser suggested that student selection should follow this year’s guidelines.

“Student selection is vital in a grade-level spilt,” he said. “We need students who are self-motivated, organized and get along well with others. We did a great job of finding that group this year and it is something that is pivotal to the success of a combo class.”