Time To Reconsider Middle School System

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Dear school board: It’s time to color outside the lines. Please. We implore you.

The Payson Unified School District took a small, halting step in that direction this week, by setting up a committee to look into whether the district can save money and adapt to slowly declining enrollment by shuffling grade levels at Payson’s three elementary schools. The idea is that the district can fill up classes more easily and avoid dual-grade classes if it concentrates all the first- and second-graders on one campus.

The task force will study the idea and report back to the board.

But why stop there?

Here’s a thought: Ask that committee to also consider shifting the district to a K-8 system. Research suggests that eliminating middle school might result in a jump in student scores and a reduction in discipline problems.

In addition, that approach might help the district save some real money by actually closing one of the three elementary schools — presumably the aging Frontier.

On the face of it, such a bold move would seem to make more sense and generate larger savings than simply shuffling the deck chairs at the elementary school as enrollment shrinks.

We certainly wish that the district had started the process two years ago, when the district’s plight first seemed clear — surviving enrollment declines in the face of deep state cuts in per-student support. Instead, the board effectively played for time — using federal stimulus money and piecemeal cutbacks to put off the day of reckoning, which now once again looms.

In truth, the elimination of middle school might make sense even if it didn’t enable the district to save money by closing one of its five school sites.

Nationally, middle school students typically suffer a drop in scores and a sharp rise in discipline problems. That makes sense. Many 12-year-olds aren’t yet ready to cope with five or six different teachers in a day and a welter of new subjects. Moreover, the system takes students at a painfully vulnerable time and dumps them into a new school, where peer pressures can become pathological.

Many studies have used test scores and other measurements to chart the impact of that transition. And just as students get their bearings, middle school ends and they must adjust to a new school once again.

So we hope the school board will take advantage of this moment to get creative — and consider even seemingly drastic options if it will benefit students.

After all, you have to color outside the lines if you’re going to think outside the box.

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