Ralph A. Gates Elementary School: Flexible Groupings « Center on Educational Governance (CEG)

Ralph A. Gates Elementary School: Flexible Groupings

Practice Area: Literacy for English-Language Learners

Ralph A. Gates Elementary School:
Flexible Groupings

Ralph A. Gates Elementary School

Lake Forest, California
Founded 1999
840 students
Grades K-6
78% Hispanic, 15% White, 5% Asian, 2% African-American, Other 0%
53% English language learners
5% Special needs
65% Receive subsidized meals
Teachers part of collective bargaining unit

Source: Center on Educational Governance, 2006.

Gates’ flexible groupings method groups students by academic levels for
language arts, math and English-language development. This allows the school to create smaller classes of students closest to each other’s
academic pace and needs, instead of diversifying lessons to fulfill a whole
range of learners simultaneously. Students are assessed regularly and regrouped as appropriate.

For meeting their students’ needs, Gates has received such awards as the California Association of Bilingual Educators (CABE) Award of Excellence, the California Distinguishing Schools Award, Title I Achieving Schools Award and the California School Board Association Golden Bell Award.


About half the school’s population participates in a two-way language immersion program; the other half studies the traditional K to 6 core curriculum.

For placement, the Gates staff called up the district’s computerized profile of each student’s standardized test performances, adding their own rubrics of developmental progress.

The raw data is used to rank all students in a grade from high to low — according to the principal, natural breaks in the list usually occur — and group them into classes of below grade level, at grade level and above grade level (or “challenge”).

For example, Gates uses 350 on the California Standards Test as the proficiency cut-off, the score the state calls at grade level. The school then groups the below grade level learners at 17 points above and 34 points below, to account for standard error. Special education students are included in these groupings.

At the beginning of each school year, the principal asks for volunteers to teach each grouping. The number of groups formed depends on class size and instructional needs, but it’s preferred that there’s at least one group on each of the three levels, to customize curriculum appropriately.

The school tries to keep the below grade level and at grade level groups as small as possible, depending on staff availability. The below grade level groups are five to six students with a certified teacher overseeing them; the other groups range from 15 to 20 students.

Teachers assess student progress monthly with grade-level unit exams and pre- and post-tests; students are regrouped accordingly if necessary.

Additionally, parents are offered workshops throughout the year and a nine-to-12-week Parent Academy to learn skills to assist their children at home.


To ensure the same standard-based education, teachers meet weekly in grade-level groups to discuss lessons and plan strategies.

As flexible grouping is schoolwide, it affects many aspects of the budget. Money is necessary to pay long-term substitutes who keep low level group size small. Fifteen to 20 percent of the budget is spent on teacher training.

Lessons Learned

The teachers say that the first benefits of flexible grouping they see are increases in student self-esteem and motivation. Grouping students together by similar needs makes them less intimidated about speaking up or taking risks in the classroom, which leads to progress.

Completing lessons in the allotted time isn’t easy, the Gates teachers have said. Finding, funding and scheduling support staff for the below grade level groups is another challenge. Gates tries to provide each grouping with its own classroom, which stretches the school to its capacity.


In flexible grouping, all students receive the same curriculum, but in a form that best suits them individually.

State test scores have improved every year since flexible grouping was initiated: most notably the API jump from 689 in 2001 to 746 in 2003, despite an influx of English language learners and socioeconomically disadvantaged children during that time. Gates has also noted annually the number of far-below-grade level second-graders who become fifth-graders in proficient groups.


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