THIS STORY RAN IN IN THE PRINT EDITION OF THE NEWTON KANSAN ON AUG. 22, 2008.

Each morning, a group of 17 students hangs their backpacks in the hallway of Slate Creek Elementary, ready to learn in a unique classroom taught by Christie Brown.

For Brown, it’s a bit like going back in time — her first teaching job was at an elementary school that had mixed classrooms. But for Newton, placing nine first-grade students and eight kindergarten students in the same room for the day is new.

“How I teach the curriculum will be a little different in my room,” Brown said. “It’s more differential in instruction to try and meet the children’s needs.”

Combining kindergarten and first-grade students wasn’t something the school had planned to do — but something that had to be done as a response to a large kindergarten class.

Following enrollment, the school had 71 students enrolled in kindergarten — with space for 63.

“We didn’t want to send them to other buildings, and we had a smaller number of first-grade kids,” said Kevin Neuenswander, principal at Slate Creek. “It worked to make a combination class.”

Having a teacher experienced with a multi-level classroom helped with the decision — as did considering factors, such as English Language Learners and the number of children with older siblings in the school.

“Kindergarten enrollment has been up as a whole,” Superintendent John Morton said. “Most of our growth has been at the elementary school level and, hopefully, that will continue.”

Morton said the combined classroom is a one-year fix. Next year, a classroom addition at Northridge will be completed giving the district more space for elementary students.

Also coming in the future is moving fifth grade out of the elementary schools and into a fifth- and sixth-grade building — creating even more space for students in kindergarten through fourth grade.

But for now when space gets tight, it takes creative solutions to meet student needs.

For Brown, that means making changes to how she teaches each day and who is in her room to help.

“Some of our curriculum is grade-level specific, like math and science,” Neuenswander said. “We’ll keep students separated for that. One way we do that is to have extra support for that classroom.”

Some of the curriculum is not grade specific — for guided reading and writing students are grouped by their abilities. That holds true for classrooms across the district and will be where students will be mixing a lot between the two grade levels in Brown’s classroom.

At the end of the school year the kindergarten students in Brown’s room will move to first grade —for some that could mean having another year with her as a teacher.

Before those students who were combined with first graders were moved from the kindergarten room to first grade, each were evaluated by teachers and school staff to be sure they would be ready.

And while change can be difficult, Morton said having the combined classroom is an idea that’s time has come.

“I know this will sound like heresy to some,” Morton added. “But we know children don’t all enter the same grade level at the same skill level. There is some flexibility and grouping going on in our district, but probably not as much as there ought to be.”