Kindergartners and first-grade students at Burnham School in Bridgewater call their combined class "one-dergarten" to acknowledge they are united in learning.

"We tried `youngers' and `olders,' but that just didn't work to define the students," said "one-dergarten" teacher Kristyn DeSousa. "We decided on `one-dergarten' because we are all one together when we learn and go on our field trips."

The combined classroom is a pilot program in Region 12 this school year. With a significantly shrinking student enrollment, the region is seeking solutions to keep class sizes large enough for proper development of socialization skills.

Superintendent of Schools Pat Cosentino is pleased with the progress.

"The region is extremely pleased with the `one-dergarten' class," Cosentino said. "Students are flourishing in a collaborative learning environment."

Some parents question the longterm success of combined-grade classrooms.

"This year may be going well, but I'd like to see two years of data before deciding to go forward with this," said parent Carolan Dwyer. "By all accounts, this class is exceptional.

"Kristyn is great, and we're lucky to have a retired teacher in the room this year to assist her," she said. But what happens in coming years when it's not the same mix?"

Before the pilot class was formed, Burnham and Booth Free schools principal Cathy Colella, the region's curriculum director, Teresa DeBrito, and DeSousa did their homework, researching successful combined classroom situations in school districts across the state.

"We found nine school districts that have combined-grade classrooms," Colella said. "We visited Falls Village, a New Haven magnet school, a North Haven school and Warren School."

While one of those nine districts, Lebanon, had discontinued combined classrooms, it was due to concerns about adequately teaching to Common Core for grades three and four that were being combined, Colella said.

The "big takeaway" from their research, she said, was the discovery there are "supports" in the combined-grade classrooms to address curriculum.

Where there were two grade levels in the classroom, two certified teachers were also there. That assures grade-appropriate curriculum would be presented to all of the children, Colella said.

In the "one-dergarten" classroom at Burnham, a retired certified teacher, Michele Segerson, assists DeSousa. When DeSousa teaches mathematics to kindergartners, her assistant teaches math to first-graders.

Some blended curriculum is utilized, such as social studies, while other curriculum is being "looped," like science, in which first-grade level science is presented in the first year and kindergarten level presented in the next, Colella said.

There are challenges to the combined grade program. Planning and structuring lessons for two grade levels must be done daily by DeSousa.

Additionally, assessments of students, done independently, is more complex.

stuz@newstimes.com; 203-731-3352