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07-09-12: School board opts to keep existing grade configuration
07-09-12: School board opts to keep existing grade configuration

The school board has unanimously agreed to keep district schools in a K-6, 7-9, and 10-12 grade configuration and discontinue further study of a middle school model.

In making the recommendation to the board on July 9, Assistant Superintendent of Instructional and Organizational Alignment Casey Cox cited cost and space constraints as key reasons for keeping the existing grade level structure.

The 15-member Grade Level Configuration Committee made up of educators and parents has spent nearly two years studying the merits and challenges associated with switching to a K-5, 6-8, and 9-12 middle school configuration.

Former Deputy Superintendent Debra Aungst co-chaired the committee with Aylen Junior High Principal Christine Moloney. The committee was scheduled to submit a final report in March 2013.

Some of the committee’s findings, which have been contained in progress reports to former Superintendent Tony Apostle, are either under way or in the process of being incorporated throughout the district, Cox said.

Extensive work has been done, for example, to provide for a smooth transition between elementary and junior high, as well as between junior high and high school, he said.

Additionally, new junior high schools have been built and existing ones remodeled to encourage team teaching, particularly in core academic subjects such as English and social studies.

Other strengths of a middle school model outlined by the committee are also doable in the district’s current grade level configuration, Cox said. These include adding sixth-grade intramural sports and expanding junior high world language offerings to accommodate students eager to take four years of language before high school graduation.

Director Pat Jenkins joined the board in thanking the Grade Level Configuration Committee for its work. He said members put extensive “care and thought” into their research.

Director Pat Donovan added, “I am pleased that a lot of initiatives they found successful are ones we are either doing or are in the process of implementing.”

In the end, the challenges identified in the committee’s research outweighed the advantages of moving to a complete middle school reconfiguration, Cox said.

One of the most significant challenges, Cox said, would be to find space to add ninth graders on high school campuses that are already serving more students than they were built to accommodate.

Common areas, such as cafeterias, “are taxed as they are right now” without adding another 600 students per campus, he said. The cost of modifying the schools to accommodate ninth graders would total millions of dollars.

Districtwide, more than 5,000 students — nearly one fourth of the district’s entire student population — are in portable classrooms for one or more class periods a day, Cox said. Adding more portables is not a solution to the problem, he said.

Other costs associated with reconfiguring to a middle school model include transferring or reassigning teaching staff to match the grade levels they are certified to teach, creating new school signage, and purchasing supplies, materials, and curriculum for new courses.

While the board was unanimous in its decision to maintain the current grade configuration, President Greg Heath noted that the action doesn’t preclude implementing a middle school concept from being studied and possibly implemented in the future.

“Never say never,” Heath said. “There is a lot of merit to this.”

Superintendent Tim Yeomans shared his thanks for the “great work” that went before him on studying grade configuration.

While the district will keep its current grade structure for the foreseeable future, Yeomans said he is excited to see the district move forward on some of the committee’s findings that will contribute to improved instruction and student achievement.

The district will also continue to address school facility needs, he said, “to create the best learning environment possible.”