Placing students is both art, science

Choosing which classes to place the Island’s 1,700 elementary students into is no easy task. Indeed, dozens of hours, stacks of reports and a team of Mercer Island School District minds go into placing each and every one of the Island’s young students. It is about finding a fine balance of classroom diversity — both socially and academically.

Last Thursday, the Mercer Island School Board discussed this annual process with the Island’s three elementary school principals: Nancy Loorem of Island Park, Rich Mellish of West Mercer, and Fred Rundle of Lakeridge. The principals summarized the summer-long task, explaining what factors go into their choices and how the process has developed over recent years.

“When we create classes, we look at establishing a balance of boys and girls, students’ learning needs, friendships and separating students who would not work well together,” Loorem wrote in a letter home to parents. “Teachers work in grade level teams to create cohesive learning groups. They do so without knowledge of who the classroom teacher will be, but rather focus on the quality of the group.”

The Island Park principal explained that the staff members on the placement team do not know which teacher they are designating the children to. It’s not about the teachers, Loorem said; it’s about the classroom dynamic.

Her colleagues agreed.

“A lot is about not putting all of the extroverts in one class and all of the introverts in another,” Mellish explained to School Board members.

Loorem added that past teachers provide information on a student’s behavior inklings, class conduct and learning style. The teachers fill out detailed forms on each student. These forms are collected over the years to make a comprehensive student record. Other reviews — those from the student’s parents, paraprofessionals or any other staff member with one-on-one contact — are included. The team uses these forms as a resource when deciding how to group each class.

After the team has its say, the entire elementary staff gets to chime in.

“Learning support, special education and ELL staff; music, P.E. and library specialists; playground teachers and the behavior specialist; and our school counselor, psychologist, nurse and speech specialist, are all given an opportunity to contribute to teachers’ thinking about groupings of students,” Loorem wrote in her letter.

Finally, the groupings are submitted to each elementary principal, who has the final say. The principal then chooses a teacher for each class.

“As you can see, every effort is made to create cohesive groupings with the goal of creating the best learning environment possible for your student,” Loorem wrote.

Yet the process is not fault-proof. Every year, certain students do not thrive with their group of peers. Other times, cohorts of students band together and create trouble for the rest of the class. These issues are unavoidable, yet they are not unnoticed.

“You have to work with the situation,” Loorem said. “Some cohorts of kids going through [school] are just challenging cohorts. Some years are harder to group than others.”

Students who have trouble working together one year are usually split up the following year. But it is not always possible to separate every troublesome group. After all, there are only so many teachers.

“Sometimes we talk about class size being important. Well, the underlying variable to this is when we have more teachers, we have that many more styles of teaching. It’s not always about the size, but the dynamic of the class,” Rundle pointed out.

For more than five years now, parents have not been allowed to request a specific teacher for their child. This change was made to ensure a more level playing field and eschew biased influence. A parent is, however, able to ask the district not to place their child with a certain teacher for whatever reason. The principals look over the reasons stated when considering where to place the student.

“I’m monitoring the comments made by parents,” Loorem said, adding that while most comments from parents are open for staff review, others are strictly confidential.

Keeping placement out of the influence of parents has improved the overall process, according to Loorem.

“In other districts, parents try to get really involved. It can become a completely untenable situation,” she said.

Her fellow principals agreed. For the most part, they pointed out, Island parents consent willingly to the “no-request” rule.

“Parents really don’t make requests,” Mellish said. “I only get about four or five a year, and most are about a past experience with a particular teacher.”

“It comes down to the conversations we have with parents and being a good listener,” Rundle added.

After listening to the three principals explain the classroom placement process, School Board members commended them for their dedication and professionalism.

“The system works because of your skill and attention,” School Board member Lisa Strauch Eggers said. “This is a totally human-driven system. We have to have good administrators for it to work.”

Superintendent Gary Plano agreed.

“The principals are the gatekeepers,” he said. “You ensure that it’s not just a teacher-centric but also a student-centric process.”

Classroom placement letters are usually sent out to parents a week before the school year begins. This year, school starts on Aug. 31, so the letters will be mailed out around Aug. 24.

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