An eight-year-old program in which some St. Helena students spend two years in a row with the same teacher could soon be eliminated.

Based on trends in student achievement data, Superintendent Marylou Wilson is recommending that the school board discontinue “looping” in grades 1-2 and 4-5, starting in the 2019-2020 school year.

After an initial discussion in February, trustees could take action on Wilson’s recommendation at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, March 14, at Vintage Hall.

“I don’t have anything against looping,” Wilson said. “It has a lot of benefits. This isn’t about ‘looping is bad.’ It’s about what’s best and right for our district today.”

The St. Helena Unified School District introduced looping for grades 1-2 and 4-5 in 2011 after eliminating a three-track K-5 system that offered the Multi-Age Program (MAP), Spanish Dual Immersion, or traditional classes.

Looping has advantages and disadvantages. On the plus side, students who have the same teacher and classmates for two years in a row gain a sense of stability and don’t have to acclimate to a new teacher during the second loop year. Looping teachers have more time to build relationships with students and observe their needs and learning styles.

On the other hand, critics say students and teachers can get a little too comfortable together, making students less adaptable and resilient. Looping can also prolong negative experiences for students who don’t mesh with their teacher or classmates.

Wilson said another disadvantage of looping is that it requires teachers to master subject matter for two different grade levels.

Between math, science, English language arts, English language development and social sciences, that’s 10 separate curricula that have to be mastered by teachers who loop between fourth and fifth grade.

Wilson said the reevaluation of looping grew out of a board study session on academic achievement, followed by discussions involving principals and teachers. The district met with parents on March 6 to discuss Wilson’s recommendation and collect feedback.

Wilson pointed out test scores showing that the percentage of students proficient in math and English language arts declined as students progressed through third, fourth, fifth and sixth grades.

Wilson said she can’t directly blame the lackluster performance on looping, “but I can’t live with this, and I have to ask staff to look at this and make recommendations around what we can do.”

Wilson said about 80 percent of teachers at the TK-5 level favor eliminating looping, based on her conversations with Brandon Farrell, president of the St. Helena Teachers Association. (Farrell declined to comment.) But the program does have some strong supporters.

“There’s some angst,” Wilson said. “We’re not going to make everybody happy on this one.”

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