It was around 9 a.m. on a Friday at P.S. 446 in Brownsville, Brooklyn. The fourth grade students of Class 402 sat cross-legged on a colorful rug in a dark classroom. All 20 pairs of eyes were facing forward, their faces illuminated by the light of the projector. No one spoke. They were captivated.
Their teacher read aloud from a book titled, “Sneaky Taxes,” pausing after a few lines to ask the students questions about the French and Indian War and the Quartering Act. After a lively debate, the 20 9- and 10-year-olds poured their concentration into writing essays.
In a perfect world, every classroom would look like this all the time: no talking out of turn, no disruptions and no squirmy students eager to run around the classroom. Before it was re-designed in 2012, the building that now houses P.S. 446 was home to failing schools that did not always provide students the emotional or psychological support they needed. Its surrounding neighborhood, Brownsville, is the poorest in Brooklyn, with 37 percent living below the poverty level. The area had the second highest rate of student homelessness in Brooklyn according to data from the 2013-2014 school year. Perhaps not surprising given these home and life challenges, about 40 percent of its elementary age students miss 20 or more school days each year, the highest rate of chronic absence for young children in the city.
To address these challenges, educators in P.S. 446 instituted many changes. Among them was something called looping, the practice of keeping classes and teachers together for more than one year. It’s common in Finland, where schools routinely rank among the world’s top scorers in the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) exam, a test in applied knowledge for randomly selected 15 year olds in the world’s developed nations. In New York, it’s a rare practice.
Experts point to multiple benefits of looping, including better class management. “It fosters a relationship with students, it fosters a relationship with families,” said Mark Alter, professor of educational psychology at New York University. “I think over time you get a better understanding of the kids. You’re better able to manage the classroom.”
The students of Class 402 have been together for four years, since first grade. Teachers believe this has been instrumental in fostering deep relationships with students and families, creating a sense of community and order in the school.
“We understand them, they understand us,” said Katie Luft, one of their teachers. “They know what we expect of them and there’s no time wasted on that. Let’s just get to work.”
The school’s founding principal, Meghan Dunn, made the decision to keep classes and teachers together because she had spent five consecutive years with her students when she was teaching at P.S. 335 in Crown Heights. This familiarity, she believed, helped cut down on discipline problems.
“I felt like I could teach so much more because I didn’t have to manage,” Dunn said.
In addition, looping is an opportunity for teachers to grow and improve as professionals. Dunn’s goal is to cultivate successful classrooms by stocking them with teachers who have the resources they need to prepare and execute thoughtful and well-planned classroom lessons. If teachers are struggling to connect with their students, Dunn makes sure they get the support and training they need to troubleshoot problems in the classroom.
“It doesn’t matter if a teacher has them for a day, a month or five years,” Dunn said. “You have to find a way to support.”
At P.S. 446, it’s not just about being a good first, second or third grade teacher. The goal is to be a good teacher who is capable of teaching students at different ability levels. Dunn acknowledged that the constant change can be hard on teachers; after all, they have to learn how to teach new material every year. But Dunn thinks it’s worth it, because it pushes teachers to keep improving.
“I don’t think anything can really prepare you for it,” Melissa Biase said. She has been with Class 402 since first grade and co-teaches the class with Luft. She looped for two years with a class at her last school, where she taught kindergarten and first grade special education. This is her first time staying with the same class for four consecutive years, and she believes it has helped her become a better teacher precisely because it is not easy to do. Luft, who has been teaching in New York City for nine years, never looped before joining Class 402 last year in third grade.
“It’s not just knowing your routines and how you’re going to run your classroom,” Biase said. “You don’t have to worry about that come the summer. But now I need to be able to teach new curriculum, and it gets harder.”
She also must also hold herself accountable for teaching at a fourth grade level, even though it’s tempting to spend time on material the students may not have mastered the year before. She tries to make sure she is preparing the students to rely on her less.
“They know this is the flow, this is what we’re doing, which is great in the sense it makes them comfortable and they feel safe,” Biase said. “But it’s harder for them to be independent because they never had to adapt to another teacher.”
The school’s instructional coach, Jacqueline Coley, worries about what happens when looping ends and the transition to middle school in the sixth grade begins. This is the first year that P.S. 446 will graduate a class of fifth graders, so she will be observing this transition over the next year. Right now, her focus is on helping teachers overcome the challenges related to curriculum and grade-level teaching that Biase pointed out.
In order to help teachers stay on grade level, Coley organizes the teachers into Grade Level Teams comprised of teachers teaching the same grade. They meet weekly to discuss the curriculum, share teaching techniques and provide emotional support. They are also encouraged to get involved in other teams, such as the Attendance Team, Care Team and the Instructional Team to give them a chance to interact with other teachers in the school. In addition, P.S. 446 has an extensive staff providing additional instructional support, social services and counseling professionals.
“They see it as a challenge,” Coley said, describing how teachers respond to looping. “And they get it, because they understand that it’s up to us to make this work for the kids.”
Mark Alter, professor of educational psychology at New York University, agrees with Dunn and Coley’s assessment of the positive impact on teachers and noted that looping is only successful when teachers are well supported. His concerns lie in measuring the impact of looping on students, particularly special education students.
Class 402 has a high population of special education students, and each one has an Individualized Education Program (IEP), a plan that outlines how the school and teachers will provide specialized education services to match a student’s unique learning needs. Classroom teachers play a big role in writing a student’s IEP, which also sets goals for improving a student’s social and academic skills.
“It’s a huge benefit because I’ve been writing their IEPs since first grade, so I know without looking or reading it—their strengths, their weaknesses, what sets them off, what doesn’t, their personality,” Biase said. “From a special education point of view, the parents really take your word for what you’re saying because you really know them and you have their best interests at heart.”
But Alter worries that there is not enough evidence about best practices—what works and why—to ensure that students are benefiting from this teaching technique. He pointed out that there are other older schools in New York City, such as public school Central Park East I (M497) in East Harlem and the private Rudolf Steiner School located on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, that have been keeping students and teachers together for longer since the schools were founded decades ago. While both schools boast records of excellent academic achievement, Alter cautions that there is not enough research to draw clear conclusions about the impact of looping on students’ academic achievement.
“My fear is that looping could retain the kids in a restrictive environment. Or it may keep the kid in an environment that’s not producing results,” he said.
According to Alter, schools need to evaluate both student and teacher performance throughout the multi-year relationship. This means making sure students with IEPs are improving, and students without IEPs are also getting the type of individualized lessons they might need to succeed. In addition, it is important to observe students’ social skills outside of the classroom and whether or not they’re able to make new friends.
The impact of looping is not formally measured at P.S. 446, but according to Dunn, they will be looking at it more closely in the future. Next year, P.S. 446 will switch to a two-year loop model, and classes will be kept together with the same teacher for only two consecutive years. For now, teachers and administrators are keeping a close watch on students’ behavior and how they interact with each other.
On one typical Friday, the students of Class 402 traveled the halls of P.S. 446 as an impenetrable unit. They marched up the stairs in a neat line. In gym class, they moved as a pack from one end of the gym to the other, laughing and squealing as they played a game resembling basketball. Breathless and sweaty, one student plopped down on a folding chair on the sidelines for a water break.
“These guys are great,” said the student, pointing out the students who joined the class this year and those who have been there since the beginning. Minutes later, he was back in the game, sprinting up the court to catch up to his classmates.