A group of Rim Country Middle School teachers, students and local residents opposed to the Payson Unified School District's decision to return that school to a traditional junior high format took their case to the school board last week.
The board has announced its intention to abandon the middle school concept adopted at RCMS in 1995 whether or not the $1.2 million budget override is approved by voters May 18.
It will be replaced by an alternative school for at-risk students in grades 6 through 12 that would probably be housed at RCMS.
Unlike a traditional junior high school, which operates much like a high school with students moving from teacher to teacher for different subjects, a middle school is structured to be developmentally responsive to the special needs of young adolescents. The rationale is that during the middle school years, students are beginning to move toward outside sources for emotional support, their academic environment becomes more intense, and they are expected to take more responsibility for their performance.
Research shows a strong correlation between academic growth and social support among young adolescents.
According to a study by the National Center for Education Statistics of 28,318 students at 304 Chicago schools, students receiving the highest amount of support increased reading achievement scores by 1.42 years and math by 1.67 years. By comparison, students receiving the lowest levels of social support increased achievement by .56 and .93 years, respectively.
At RCMS, teams made up of language arts, math, science, social studies and resource teachers work with the same group of 100 to 120 students.
At the school board meeting last week, longtime science teacher Gloria Joe challenged the school board to revisit its decision to abandon the middle school concept at RCMS.
"I've worked as a science teacher in Payson for 24 years and I have seen the tremendous benefits of middle school compared to junior high," she said. "Having experienced both for many years, the middle school provides the best educational environment for 6 to 8 graders."
Joe also noted that there are currently 11,000 middle schools in the United States compared to 3,200 junior highs.
"Junior high schools usually become middle schools, not the other way around," she said. "I found no data at all that junior highs are better -- no data at all."
Ginger Sparks, a counselor at RCMS, spoke last at the board meeting. She emphasized the fact that the school was the only one in all of Gila County to be ranked among the state's 165 "highly performing" schools by the Arizona Board of Education.
"The truth is that we should be celebrating the achievements of our middle school, not pondering its demise," Sparks said. "The truth is that our highly performing status was accomplished in spite of a contentious climate at our middle school last year. The truth is that we are the highest performing school in Gila County and yet we are being told that it is expeditious to dismantle our school."
PUSD Superintendent Herb Weissenfels said the board was unlikely to reverse its decision, but argued that the best attributes of a middle school can still be retained in a junior high school. He also indicated the parents he has heard from back the board's decision.
"All of the comments that we've had since then have been from folks that are glad the change is being made," Weissenfels said. "They don't like to have to go in and talk to five teachers instead of the one that they're concerned with."
Weissenfels also said that achievement does not have to suffer when the school reverts to a junior high format.
"Achievement is between the student and the teacher," he said. "Why should anything there change? They're still going to be teaching the same stuff, to the same standards, with the same high-caliber teachers."
Weissenfels also emphasized that it's an oversimplification to say that the alternative school is replacing the middle school concept.
"For many years, the board has had a goal to address the needs of those children that are more or less falling through the cracks," he said. "The board has been concerned about finding other ways to teach those children."
Following the open comment session, board president Viki Holmes noted that the item could not be discussed because it was not on the agenda, but that the board was preparing answers to a list of questions submitted on the subject.
She also encouraged a continuing debate on the subject at board meetings between now and July 15, when the final budget is due.
Regular board meetings are held at 5:30 p.m. the second Monday of each month and are open to the public.