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Board mulls middle school arrangement

There is no perfect way to structure a building with the ideal number of grades to enhance education, according to experts.

The District 833 School Board was recently given myriad research written by educators across the country about other districts' experiences.

The board is pondering whether to move sixth-graders to middle school with seventh and eighth grades, and moving ninth-graders to high schools.

Success seems to rest on providing a "quality education environment" when grade configurations are changed, educators say.

The national trend is toward the middle school. More than 30 districts in the metropolitan area have middle schools. Only four high schools, including Woodbury and Park, have only grades 10 to 12.

But the decision for many districts is not necessarily based on seeking the ideal environment for students. In some districts, including District 833 years ago, determining whether junior highs should have grades seven to nine was based more on dollars and available space.

"There is no perfect configuration," said Curriculum Director Becky Schroeder, adding the curriculum team visited 13 school districts.

Some districts are currently studying kindergarten to eighth grade buildings because the only theme that is constant throughout grade-configuration research is that children do better when they don't have to change schools.

Since students in District 833 already change schools twice, changing current grade configurations would not be any more traumatic than it already might be.

There are ways to help the transition of shifting if the School Board decides to make the move in connection with the upcoming September referendum, which could include either a third high school, or a system with two elementaries and a high school for grades seven to 12.

"Some students thrive in a nine to 12 high school and others won't," said Board Member Jim Gelbmann. "What can be done to help ninth-graders?"

Both sixth and ninth grades would be given opportunities to get used to new schools, including possible visits during the school year, pairing with older students and orientation sessions without older students before school starts, according to district officials.

Ninth-graders could have their classes in one part of a high school, as would sixth-graders in middle school.

Currently, junior highs are "mini high schools," according to Schroeder.

That concept would change for sixth-graders in middle school who would be organized into "houses" of approximately 130 students, each with a core group of teachers who would also act as counselors.

"Teachers have the same group of kids and get to know them all," said Supt. Tom Nelson.

Possibilities for sixth-graders in terms of electives could include foreign languages, intramural sports, more access to technology and advanced math, as well as exposure to speech and drama.

Additional arguments in favor of middle schools include that textbooks are written for sixth to eighth grades. Also, many educators consider sixth-graders as pre-adolescents who have more in common with seventh- and eighth-graders.

Moving sixth grade out of elementary schools would free up one-seventh more space, according to Mike Vogel, assistant to the superintendent for facilities.

It would allow more space for the growing demand for all-day kindergarten. Future boundary changes are likely to be less dramatic.

Nelson said parents who are turned away because of limited space in district all-day kindergarten choose private schools and tend to keep their students there instead of enrolling them in public schools for first grade.

A middle school system is more attractive for parents of students in private schools because most are grades kindergarten through eight. A ninth-grader entering the public school system would not have to change schools twice, Nelson said.

Arguments in favor of moving ninth-graders to high schools include that class credits are part of state graduation requirements. Ninth-graders would have easier access to sports teams and activity participation and more electives to choose from.

The School Board will hold a public hearing May 11 to consider what will be on the fall ballot with a final decision May 25.

If the middle school concept is not adopted, the alternative would be to build two new elementaries and one new school for students in grades seven to 12. That school would likely be a school with a special focus such as science or the arts and not have traditional sports teams.

Judy Spooner
Judy Spooner is the longest-serving staff writer at the South Washington County Bulletin. Spooner, who covers education and features in addition to writing a weekly column, has been with the newspaper for over 30 years.
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