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A Small School with Big Ambitions

Saint Joseph’s in Howell is a small Catholic school with big ambitions as staff, students and parents prepare to become the first school community in the Diocese of Lansing to embrace multi-age classrooms. 

“Multi-age classrooms will bring flexibility to meet the needs of every student, providing personalized learning opportunities, and bring rigor to teaching and learning in a new and profound way,” said Tom Maloney, Superintendent of Schools for the Diocese of Lansing.

“I applaud and commend the work of principal Renee Hornby and the teachers of Saint Joseph Catholic School as they undertake this work.  Through their commitment and dedication, they are modeling the very foundations of learning communities which bring forth a collaborative culture and caring environment.  I fully support this initiative.”

The move to multi-age classrooms will see Saint Joseph’s combine its present nine grades into three “interdisciplinary learning communities”, each with two teachers. The three new learning communities will be: Kindergarten to 2nd Grade; 3rd Grade to 5th Grade; and 6th Grade to 8th Grade.

“So far we’ve had great support from our parents for this really exciting, really positive step that we firmly believe will help all our children to grow in knowledge and understanding, gaining key 21st century skills, while also fostering a school community that is increasingly happy, holy and academically excellent,” said Renee Hornby, Principal of Saint Joseph Catholic School.

“All the evidence from elsewhere and, indeed, our own piloting of multi-age classrooms has proven to our satisfaction that the collaborative nature of these learning communities has big benefits for all students in terms of teaching problem solving, enabling independent thinking, and fostering growth in social and emotional learning.”

Renee believes that this particular combination will allow teachers the flexibility to teach at grade level, in small groups, whole group instruction, and more, while also reaching learners who need extra help and extra challenges. 

“The interdisciplinary approach allows for cross-curricular topics to be addressed deepening connections and understanding,” she says, emphasizing that this new model is very different to a traditional split class. 

“In a split, one teacher teaches two different grade levels. Instruction is given to one grade while the other class is working independently. Learning communities on the other hand show strong opportunities for learning, particularly when the emphasis is on collaborative learning.” 

The school principal points towards research suggesting that learning communities meet or outperform expectations in 91% of studies in contrast to traditional classrooms. Why would that be the case? 

“Because teachers are creating cross-curriculum experiences, students have more opportunities to form connections, synthesize concepts to develop understanding,” explains Renee. 

“The learning is more rigorous as it increases problem solving and is targeted to students’ needs. Schools that implement learning communities also see a reduction in bullying as social and emotional learning develop.” 

The introduction of Saint Joseph to learning communities has been long in the planning with the formation of a School Leadership Team comprising of staff members proving instrumental in completing the research needed to implement the plan. 

“They have helped provide clarity, asked questions, and think about the fundamentals directly impacting each child,” said Renee. The school has also piloted the new approach over the past year among early year learners and, says Renee, with staff and parents being “very impressed” by the results in terms of both educational and social development.

“The Catholic school exists to assist parents in helping their children to grow in knowledge, wisdom and virtue so that all our young people develop into adults who are both happy and holy as they fulfill their God-given potential,” explained Renee.

She points towards a recent assessment of the school, using the University of Chicago’s “Essential Components for a Successful School”, which found that Saint Joseph parents believe their school has improved over that past year in all categories including leadership, parental and community ties, staff professionalism and faithfulness to Catholic teachings.

“We now look forward to continuing to work ever-more closely with our wonderful parents in implementing these new learning communities so that their children benefit from the long-standing tradition of excellence in education at Saint Joseph Catholic School.”

Saint Joseph’s aims to implement the change to multi-age classrooms by the 2020-2021 school year. For more information go to:

Jan. 10, 2020