For the 15 or so years that Maria Houmis has been teaching, she has presided over a traditional elementary school classroom. Her pupils sat in neat, long rows facing the front of the room. They kept quiet most of the school day. This year, the traditional arrangement is out. The neat rows are gone, replaced by clusters of three or four desks. The quiet has been replaced by a low-volume buzz that goes on much of the day as the pupils trade ideas.
But the biggest difference in the classroom at Mittye P. Locke Elementary School is that pupils from three grade levels share the same classroom.
Of the 23 children in Mrs. Houmis' class, five are first-graders, eight are second-graders and 10 are third-graders. They range in age from 6 to 9. The children have varying abilities, and they operate on several reading levels.
Despite all the differences in age, ability and size, the children work together in the same classroom all day.
"They call it a one-room schoolhouse," said 6-year-old Tyler Stone, a first-grader in Mrs. Houmis' class.
The unusual classroom arrangement came about not because of space limitations or some other necessity. It came about because Mrs. Houmis and other Pasco school officials wanted to try an experiment based on the philosophy that children of varying abilities get more out of the classroom when they learn from the teacher and from each other.
Pasco school officials were intrigued by the concept of "continuous progress," where children in the early grades progress and grasp the basics at their own pace, and wanted to try something new. They knew the traditional classroom setting was not the place for the experiment.
Parents of children at Locke Elementary were given a choice whether their children would be in a traditional classroom or Mrs. Houmis' classroom this school year. Then, through a random drawing, the class was assembled with the parents' consent.
Thus was born Mrs. Houmis' class, a new angle on the old-fashioned, one-room schoolhouse concept.
"The teacher wanted to give it a try; the principal wanted to give it a try; we wanted to give it a try," said Mary Giella, assistant superintendent in charge of instruction for Pasco schools. "There are different ways to approach continuous progress. Right now, we're testing the waters."
As with any experiment in education, parents wanted some answers before they sent their children. Some questioned whether the third-graders would be held back. Some questioned whether the first-graders would get left behind.
"Of course, I had questions," said LouAnn Morrow, whose son, Andrew, is a third-grader in Mrs. Houmis' class. "It was a little different, so I asked, "How is this going to work? How can you teach a first-grader and a third-grader in the same class?'
"She said, "They'll work at their own pace, sort of like independent study.' It's working pretty well."
Mrs. Morrow said that because two of her sons had Mrs. Houmis as a teacher, she knew to trust the veteran teacher.
"It was different, but I was more excited than concerned," said Mimi Mendonca, whose daughter, Christine, is a second-grader. "Socially and academically, the kids are learning a lot by helping each other out. If you're going to explain something, you have to understand it pretty well first."
The children had questions, too.
"At first I thought it might be a little noisy with the first- and second-graders," third-grader Andrew Morrow said. "But it's a good idea."
"It's different because we help each other," said 7-year-old Nicole Thompson, a second-grader. "In regular classes you're not allowed to help each other."
In short, here's how the classroom operates: Mrs. Houmis will teach a lesson to the whole class, and keep the lesson fairly basic. Then, the pupils will work individually, perhaps in workbooks, and carry the lesson a step or two further. If it's a math lesson, some pupils might work individually on addition and subtraction, while others might do multiplication.
In their individual work, the pupils talk with each other. That way, the older children often help the younger children. The older children review their basics; the younger children are exposed to higher concepts.
"Sometimes things make more sense when a classmate helps you with it," Mrs. Houmis said.
Many of the classroom assignments can be done at various levels. The spelling words are listed on the board, starting with basic words in simple print: job, school. More challenging words also are listed in simple print: relief, should. Finally, even more challenging words are listed in cursive letters: political, terrestrial.
The children are expected to learn the basic spelling words. But, Mrs. Houmis said, the children often master more challenging words on their own.
"Children can surprise you all the time," Mrs. Houmis said. The key, she said, is to expose them to higher concepts so they have a chance to do just that.
One of the biggest questions facing Mrs. Houmis and the other school officials is what to do next year. Mrs. Houmis said she might continue with the first-, second- and third-grade set up, with a new group of first-graders. Or she might keep the same group of children and have a second-, third- and fourth-grade class.
"It might make sense to have the teacher follow the students through the grades," assistant superintendent Giella said. "It's like a doctor who knows your medical history _ sticking with that doctor.
"There's a lot of different things that we can try. We're testing the waters to see what works best."