Principal Janet Link and teachers Rachael Tubiello and Linda McBride are strong advocates of looping.
Credit: Jeff Cary
On the first day of school in rural Bucks County, Pennsylvania, Rachael Tubiello looked out into the eager faces of her tiny second graders and this is what she saw: old friends.
Tubiello's students this year are the same children she guided through the highs and lows of first grade. Together, students and teacher have advanced to the second grade through an innovative approach to learning known as looping.
Also called continuous learning, multiyear placement, or family-style learning, looping -- in which the same teacher remains with a group of students for two or more years -- is a concept as old as the one-room schoolhouse. And yet, its proponents say the practice has a solid place in the 21st-century classroom because looping has been known to strengthen student-teacher bonds, improve test scores, expand time for instruction, increase parent participation, and reduce behavioral problems and placements in special education programs.
When Principal Janet Link approached Tubiello fours years ago and asked whether she'd consider looping with her first graders, "I jumped on it, because I loved my class that year," Tubiello recalls. "The end of first grade is such an amazing time. You want to keep going, because it's just beginning to click." When a teacher has an opportunity to work with the same children for another year, she adds, "you can take them to the next level of anything."
Looping at Durham Nockamixon Elementary School, in Kintnersville, began -- as it does at many schools -- when one teacher learned about the practice and found another willing to work as a team. (As one teacher moves up a grade, another must drop down to take the next group of children.)
The Palisades School District, of which Durham Nockamixon is a part, sent a small group of interested teachers to a national conference on looping and multiage classrooms where, Tubiello says, they were inspired by the writings of educator Jim Grant, a passionate advocate of continuous learning and author of several books about looping.
Parents and teachers are tired of America's "time-bound, lockstep school systems," Grant says in an interview from his offices at Staff Development for Educators, a provider of professional-development training and resources in Peterborough, New Hampshire.
"We have literally tried everything" to improve educational standards, he says. "One of the last things we've got left to try is an element of the one-room schoolhouse."
"We don't change dentists every 36 weeks, or pediatricians, or auto mechanics," Grant adds. "It makes no sense to change teachers."
Although staff must prepare to teach at least two grade levels, looping costs a district virtually nothing. Since it requires extra classroom preparation, it usually attracts a school's most energetic teachers and gives them an opportunity to push the limits of their professional development, Grant says.
"The very best staff development experience a teacher can have is to change grade levels" and experience the class at a new developmental stage because, he adds, "a seven-year-old isn't a large version of a six-year-old."
The eighth annual Conference on Looping, Multiage, and Best Teaching Practices, held last summer in Indianapolis, drew more than 2,000 participants representing all 50 states, many Canadian provinces, and about a dozen foreign countries. Though there are no reliable statistics on how many districts employ looping, Grant says, "I can tell you that every school is either doing it or thinking about it."
Looping is characteristic of the private Waldorf schools -- one of America's fastest-growing education movements -- where teachers stay with the same group of students in grades 1-8. It's also widely used in Germany, Israel, Italy, and Japan, where teachers remain with their students through fourth grade.
Growing, Learning Together
Back in Pennsylvania, Durham Nockamixon offers exactly what Grant says parents are hungry for: options in education. Parents of kindergartners are invited to information nights in the spring, where they learn about the school's special blend of placement opportunities for first graders. Parents can opt for a traditional classroom, a looping classroom, or a classroom that goes to the next step with a multigrade/looping combination.
That's the class taught by Linda McBride, a 30-year teaching veteran who welcomes a new group of first graders each September, while the other half of her class consists of second graders who were with McBride the previous year.
"I really like it," she says with a grin. "I like having the kids come back to me. The little first grader who's not even reading in the beginning of the year -- you get such a sense of accomplishment when you grow with them."
Because looping teachers already know their students' strengths, and the children understand what's required of them, September isn't lost to establishing classroom routines or student assessment. Advocates like to say the first day of school is actually the 181st day of school for a child in a looping classroom.
"There's no lost time," McBride says. "You can just pull out the books and get started."
Principal Janet Link says her district isn't doing any formal long-term study to measure the success of looping. "We are seeing stronger readers going into third grade," she adds, and placements in special education classes have declined, a trend reported by other districts that have adopted looping.
In a looping classroom, Link says, "teachers feel they can give kids extra time to grow because they know they'll be with them the following year." Looping allows for a wait-and-see approach to a student who's struggling; otherwise, a teacher may feel pressured to move a student whose grasp of material is tentative into special education classes for fear of not responding to the child's needs.
One district that has quantified the benefits of looping is in Attleboro, Massachusetts, where the technique is used for all students in grades 1-8. According to surveys conducted by the Attleboro Public Schools, retention rates -- holding students back -- in grades 2-8 decreased by more than 43 percent, special education referrals dropped by more than 55 percent, and discipline and suspensions -- especially in the middle schools -- declined significantly, while attendance rates improved for both students and teachers.
Looping's Pros and Cons
The downsides to looping are few but not insignificant: Parents worry about the prospect of a child drawing a weak teacher two years in a row. Educators worry about being stuck with a difficult class (or, as Grant puts it, "the classroom from the Black Lagoon," where the student mix is intolerable). In every case, problems can be handled the way they would if the same situation occurred in a traditional classroom -- reassignment.
"Looping and multiage don't work for everybody," teacher Rachael Tubiello says. "If it doesn't work, you have to change it and be open to the possibility that things won't work out."
The intangibles of looping are what really delight the teachers at Durham Nockamixon. Tubiello keeps in touch over the summer with her students by meeting for ice cream or a play date at the local park. Parents develop classroom attachments as strong, or stronger, than the ones their children form. McBride had so many parent volunteers this year that she had to make up a special schedule to accommodate all the extra help.
"For young children, looping is ideal," Tubiello says. "They bond with you. They're more willing to take risks, because they know you. They are willing to try something and make a mistake."
Come September, when they are returning to a teacher they already know, children naturally feel secure. Happily, the feeling is mutual.
"With loopers in the second year, there are no first-day jitters," Tubiello says. "And I sleep like a baby the night before my second year begins. There's no stress worrying about whether they'll like me, too."
Cynthia Roberts is a freelance writer and the former publisher of Parents Express, a monthly parenting newspaper based in Philadelphia.