Schools can't agree on what to do with twins

These children are a natural-born source of conflict between parents and school administrators when it comes to moving them apart

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Dawn Lynch had mixed emotions when she found out administrators at McClellan Elementary School had assigned her twin sons to separate first-grade classes without consulting her first.

"I didn't really have a choice," said Mrs. Lynch, of Pleasant Hills. "I didn't know what would be better for them. So I thought whatever the school recommends, we'll try it. And that's what we did."

Bob Donaldson, Post-Gazette photos
Nate, left, and Zach Bota, 16, were in the same classroom until the fifth grade. Now they're apart.
Click photo for larger image.

Though it was agonizing for the whole family at first because one of the twins was adamantly against being separated, Noah and Kellen, 7, got used to being split sooner than they or their parents might have preferred. They are finishing first grade next month.

With 29 sets of twins enrolled in the district, West Jefferson Hills administrators regularly face the question of whether to place them together or apart.

Many school districts deliberately separate twins and multiples as early as first grade under the belief that separation benefits the individual development of the children.

But the question of whether they should be educated together in the same classroom has for years been a source of conflict between parents and school officials.

In recent years, it has prompted lawmakers in several states, including Pennsylvania, to take a closer look at the uncommon bond that exists between twins, and school policies concerning their classroom placement.

A total of 21 states have either passed legislation or are considering laws concerning twins or other multiples in schools.

State Sen. Stewart Greenleaf, R-Montgomery, and Rep. Jess Stairs, R-Mount Pleasant, have recently introduced separate bills in the Pennsylvania Senate and House that would give parents the final decision on whether their twins or other multiples are taught in the same or separate classrooms.

"The reason I introduced it was the result of a constituent who contacted me about a situation where they had twins and they wanted the ability to place those twins in a classroom together," Mr. Greenleaf said.

"That's not the law right now, and they feel that it has tremendous detrimental impact on the twins when they are separated. So, what this legislation would do is give the parents' choice priority."

The bills are still being considered by committees in the House and Senate.

Under both bills, school districts would counsel parents regarding the pros and cons, but parents would have the power to make the final decision on whether their twins and multiples stay together unless there wasn't room for them to be together or the school board decided staying together is not in the best interest of the children.

"I think that the general consensus is they are best to stay together unless there are some unusual circumstances and then the school board could step in," the senator said.

Multiple births have increased dramatically in the past two decades, largely due to delayed childbearing and the introduction of in vitro fertilization in the 1980s.

A report from the National Center for Health Statistics in 2004 showed that the number of live multiple births that year reached 139,494. That number included 132,219 twin births, 6,750 triplet births, 439 quadruplet births and 86 quintuplet and higher births.

As the number of multiple births has increased, so has the pressure on state legislators to help parents struggling to keep the children in the same classrooms.

Minnesota became the first state to pass such a law in 2005, calling it the Minnesota Twins Law. Other states that have already passed similar legislation include Illinois and Oklahoma. Another 18 states either are considering legislation or have active petition drives.

"We believe every set [of multiples] is different, and every family should be able to make that decision on their own," said Christa Reed, spokesperson for the National Organization of Mothers of Twins Clubs based in Michigan.

Whitnee, left, and Brooke Neel, 18, were moved apart by the school district and now have widely different interests.
Click photo for larger image.Juniors Todd, left, and Matthew Cline were separated in elementary school at their mother's request.
Click photo for larger image.

"It depends on personal preferences," Ms. Reed said. "We like to encourage schools to allow parents who are raising twins and multiples to make that choice because they are the ones who know their children."

Marissa Reed, the school psychologist for West Jefferson Hills, said the district has no formal policy concerning placement of twins; however, the research she has found supports the proposal to allow parents to make the choice.

"There is really no overwhelming evidence to suggest that separating them is best, especially in younger grades," Ms. Reed said. "Preschool and kindergarten up to third grade, it was suggested that it may be better for them to stay together.

"But what I kept finding over and over in the research is the best policy a school should adopt is a flexible policy, meaning that everyone should have some input, but the final decision should be left up to parents."

Four of the 11 sets of twins interviewed at Thomas Jefferson High School said they were all on different class schedules and wouldn't have it any other way. None of them plans to attend college together.

"Being apart, we probably made more of our own friends instead of being together all the time and making friends as the Cline twins," said Todd Cline, 17, a junior at Thomas Jefferson High School.

He said his mother requested he and his brother, Matthew, be split in elementary school. "It's worked out fine."

But twins Whitnee and Brooke Neel, 18, both seniors, weren't split at first. "In the beginning we were in the same classes, but in late elementary school that started to change. It was the school that split us up," said Whitnee.

Once inseparable, Whitnee and Brooke today are about as different as night and day. Brooke has a black belt and loves rock climbing and soccer. Whitnee is fonder of cosmetics and fashion.

At the middle school level, West Jefferson Hills students are grouped in teams. Twins are placed on the same team, but have different homerooms and different schedules, said Dan Como, principal of Pleasant Hills Middle School.

"That's what we've had the most success with. The only reason we would change that is if a parent requested it," Mr. Como said. "The student gets to be an individual in that class, but when they go home, it's a bit easier on the parents when they have to work on homework assignments night after night."

Mr. Como, who will have 11 sets of twins at the middle school in the fall, said he has never had a parent specifically request that their twins take all classes together in his four years at the school.

That kind of request seems far more common at the elementary school level.

Parent Kristine Metro, of Pleasant Hills, said the school principal at McClellan, Terri Surace, approached her one day when her fraternal twin sons were in kindergarten and suggested they be split in first grade.

"I didn't want to separate them," said Mrs. Metro, whose sons Peter and Julian, 9, are now in third grade. "You get used to them always being together. If she wouldn't have approached me, I can't say I ever would have approached her about it."

She and her husband discussed it with the twins and they were surprisingly open to the idea.

"My son Julian said, 'We can walk to school together; we can walk home together and have lunch together.' He was all excited about being together with [Peter], but he was also excited about not being with him all the time, as well."

Nate Bota, 16, shared classes with his fraternal twin brother Zach until they were in fifth grade at Pleasant Hills Middle School.

He thinks kids should have some input on class placement along with parents.

"I know in elementary school I wanted to be [in my brother's] class, but if someone has a dad who is all about independence and wants to split them up maybe that's not what the kids really want and they don't get a say in it," Nate said.

"Definitely through middle school and high school, I liked being away from him in classes. We have one or two classes together now, which isn't bad. But I don't want to be around him all day because when we go home I'm still around him."


Correction/Clarification: (Published May 25, 2007) Thomas Jefferson High School students Todd and Matthew Cline are both members of the junior class. Their class status was incorrectly reported in this report on how school districts assign twins as originally published May 21, 2007.

Tim Grant can be reached at tgrant@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1591.


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