BROOKFIELD, Connecticut — A Catholic school on the verge of closing is exploring something new in Fairfield County, reviving the fabled methods of the one-room schoolhouse.

With an infusion of technology, of course.

But the clock is ticking. And if St. Joseph School is to launch a new teaching model in the fall that emphasizes individualized learning, it will have to overcome the reluctance of teachers and the apprehension of parents, who are used to the traditional model of age-based grades.

And with customizable and interactive technology, teachers can guide students through individualized lessons and keep track of their progress.

“We are going to make this happen, to be honest,” said Father George O’Neill, the pastor of St. Joseph Church. “This model addresses each student not by age, but by stage, so you can use an iPad to make a track for each child and the child follows that track.”

St. Joseph made headlines in January when Bishop Frank Caggiano, of the Diocese of Bridgeport, gave the under-enrolled diocesan school until March to replace its traditional grade structure with more fluid groupings of students who would learn at their own paces.

Fewer teachers would be needed, since grades would be combined — much like recent changes at the Burnham School in Bridgewater, and at St. Peter/St. Francis School in Torrington, both of which were also on the verge of closing due to low enrollment.

“At the beginning it is very hard to wrap your head around how to meet the needs of each learner, with two grades in one classroom,” said Cathie Mastrogiovanni, a 20-year veteran who teaches a blend of 6-, 7- and 8-year-olds at St. Peter/St. Francis. “What is great about it is I have them for two years, so when they come to me in their second year, I already know where they’re at and what they need, so I can keep taking them as far as they need to go.”

The multi-age classroom model has been around for decades, but recently has become more popular, particularly with the advent of touch-screen technology.

“This is a very interesting approach — not just for Catholic schools but for Connecticut in general, where many districts are looking at declining enrollment,” said Catherine O’Callaghan, chair of the Education Department at Western Connecticut State University. “The key to making this work is going to be professional development for the teacher.”

Caggiano’s idea is to revitalize the 150-student St. Joseph School by making it an attractive alternative to quality public education in Brookfield.

The enrollment crisis at St. Joseph is part of a larger problem driven by families having fewer children, and a Connecticut economy that has not recovered from the Great Recession as fast as other parts of the country. As a result, parochial schools here and across the Tri-State area are typically left with two choices: to close or to merge.

The irony for St. Joseph School is it’s been given a chance to start over at a point where it was out of options.

“Sometimes out of a crisis comes opportunity,” said Steven Cheeseman, the superintendent of schools for the Bridgeport Diocese, which has pledged $250,000 toward technology and teacher training costs.

A parent who serves on a task force that will present a plan for a new St. Joseph School to parents in early March said she was optimistic about the future.

“The bishop has given us a clean slate to build a model that will appeal to more people,” said Allyson Kane, who has two children in the school. “Kids learn at different levels, and the way they learn can be addressed individually. Some might do better with manipulatives, while others might do better putting on the headphones and learning a lesson on the computer.”

It remains to be seen what specific components of the multi-age classroom the St. Joseph task force will incorporate when it presents its recommendation to school parents. Principles of blended learning include:

  • Grouping students by learning stages rather than by ages.
  • Integrating technology to make learning individualized.
  • Helping kids meet learning standards at their own pace.
  • More one-on-one time with teachers.
  • Student group collaboration.
  • Giving kids multiple ways to demonstrate their learning.
  • Frequent assessment.

Caggiano said the pilot program at St. Joseph could be a model for parochial schools in the diocese, which covers greater Danbury and all of Fairfield County.

“You will have a smaller school with personalized learning for our children that is financially solvent and doesn’t require you to make a magic (enrollment) number,” Caggiano told parents during a late January meeting. “It is innovative, it is creative, it is new, and you have to take a leap of faith.”

Principal Jo-Anne Gauger recalls the tense situation three years ago when dwindling enrollment forced St. Peter/St. Francis School to choose the multi-age education model as the only way to survive.

At the time, there was only one Catholic school in the Hartford Archdiocese that taught blended classes, and that school abruptly closed.

“My parents were up in arms, saying, ‘There is our model and now they are closing,'” recalls Gauger. “The worst part about it was we had to let teachers go … But we also lost quite a few students, because parents felt this was the last nail in the coffin.”

Gauger saw her enrollment go from 120 students in pre-K through 8th grade to 80 students the first year of the multi-age classes. Today, enrollment has climbed to 93.

“Our first year was rough,” Gauger said. “I had parents say, ‘This isn’t going to work for my child.’ But since then they have all been great about it. I mean, we have not lost students because they weren’t happy.”

In Brookfield, Caggiano and the members of the task force understand there might be teachers who do not want to work in a multi-age classroom, and there might be parents who feel it would be a bad fit for their children.

But advocates believe in the multi-age model for St. Joseph, which is running a $200,000 annual deficit.

“In a traditional classroom everyone teaches to the middle —because you have to engage as many students as possible — so the very bright students oftentimes could easily get bored and the ones who need particular help in a subject get frustrated,” Caggiano told parents during a Jan. 20 meeting to announce the initiative. “Technology allows us to motivate each child to their capability.”

Mastrogiovanni agrees.

“There is no ceiling to the learning,” Mastrogiovanni said during a recent visit to her classroom.

She taught a younger group math at the smartboard while older groups solved math problems at two round tables on the other side of the classroom.

“This is really the way learning should be, because they are pushed, and they are getting exactly what each of them needs,” Mastrogiovanni said.

In the classroom next door, 16-year veteran Christine Kupcho said the multi-age model gives her the flexibility to teach to the students’ strengths.

“They are not on my level — they are all on their own individual level,” said Kupcho, who teaches 3- and 4-year-olds. “I can create my own lesson plans and can be as accommodating or as creative as I need to be.”

In Brookfield, the proof of the model’s appeal will come when the school looks at its registration in the fall.

Although there is no minimum enrollment number — Caggiano suggested the new school could run as well with 80 students as 300 — the school cannot survive without the commitment of families.

Mastrogiovanni shared some advice.

“As rough as it is to get started you need to just embrace it and go with it and do what you can to keep Catholic education alive,” she said. “Because we need it.”