Superintendent Advocates Sticking With Middle School

O’Brien cites painful necessity, benefits of keeping grade levels together in plan to divide up elementary schools

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Alas, it’s probably too late to shift Payson to a K-8 school system — no matter what the research says — said Superintendent Casey O’Brien.

“If you could go back in time by five years, potentially there was an opportunity to build Julia Randall Elementary School as a big K-8 school and remodel the middle school,” he said, but converting existing schools now could do more harm than good.

The Payson school board is currently weighing a recommendation that the district shut down Frontier Elementary School and covert one of the two remaining elementary schools to a K-2 school and the other to a 3-5 school — while leaving the middle school and high school intact.

That move runs counter to a trend nationally as districts convert middle schools into K-8 schools, in response to studies showing that students in K-8 schools have significantly higher test scores and fewer discipline and other social problems.

Few parents or faculty in Payson have opposed the closure of Frontier Elementary School, which could save the district $300,000 in the cost of maintenance, utilities and administration. However, some parents and some research have expressed support for converting Payson Elementary School, Julia Randall Elementary School and Rim Country Middle School to K-8 schools.

However, O’Brien said trying to adapt those three campuses to a middle school model would involve some significant sacrifices.

“You need a critical mass of students in each grade,” to offer electives, advanced core classes and extracurricular programs — like sports and drama, said O’Brien.

If the district divided the sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders among three campuses “you don’t have enough kids for an algebra class, for instance,” said O’Brien.

Science classes represent another example, since the recently remodeled middle school has a good science lab, which the two elementary schools do not.

“So say we have 10 kids ready for algebra at each school site, you just can’t have a class with just 10 kids in it. You just can’t do it,” said O’Brien, who said that he has taught in both middle school and K-8 systems.

“Schools that work as K-8 schools are designed for it purposefully — the structure and organization works together. There isn’t strong research to show that if you transition (from a middle school to a K-8) that it works.”

Advocates for a shift to three K-8 schools in the district have argued that one campus could serve as a magnet school for programs like math and science,. The district might concentrate key after-school programs in things like art and music at a single campus.

These advocates cite research that on average students in K-8 systems have significantly higher test scores in math and reading and in many cases fewer discipline problems. Those studies have prompted a broad movement toward K-8 schools in many states, including Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Tennessee and at least eight other states.

O’Brien says some of those studies on the conversion from middle school to K-8 systems offer a more complex picture.

The Philadelphia School District long had a mix of middle schools and K-8 schools, but then begin to convert many to a K-8 model.

Researchers Vaughan Byrnes and Allen Ruby from Johns Hopkins University undertook an exhaustive study of 41,000 students. They compared middle school students to K-8 students — both those in established K-8 systems and those in schools that had recently converted from middle schools to K-8 schools.

The findings documented the higher test scores of the students in grades 5-8 in established K-8 schools. Moreover, the teachers had lower turnover and absenteeism rates.

However, students in converted K-8 schools enjoyed fewer, although still significant, advantages. They had higher reading scores, but didn’t register consistent gains in math.

The researchers concluded some of the test score advantages of students in the established K-8 schools had to do with their lower percentage of minority and low-income students, who generally score lower on tests. Just as important teachers in the converted middle schools had less experience.

The researchers concluded student gains in the converted K-8 schools stemmed from a combination of student demographics and fewer transitions from one school site to another. Moreover, the smaller the number of students in each grade at the school, the better they performed on tests.

However, O’Brien cited the smaller number of students in each grade as the chief disadvantage of a K-8 conversion in Payson.

Reducing the size of the sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade class by a third by splitting them between three campuses would make it harder to even out class sizes. It might also require the district to significantly increase the number of mixed grade classes.

The administration also cites the reduced reliance on mixed-age classes in suggesting the district set up one K-2 and one 3-5 campus. That would mean that two-thirds of the elementary school students will have to switch campuses next year. It also means students in the district would have to switch schools four times between kindergarten and 12th-grade.

The concentration of all the students from each grade level at one campus would mean a much more consistent student body and fewer mixed-grade classes and maximize the number of students of the same age for electives and after-school programs.

O’Brien said the district some years ago could have used a bond issue to convert the middle school and Julia Randall Elementary School into two, mid-sized K-8 schools. That could have made it possible to close two elementary schools, with substantial savings in administration, utilities and maintenance and still have two middle schools with facilities to reap the benefits of a K-8 model.

However, that doesn’t mean the district would benefit now from a hasty conversion to a three-campus K-8 system.

Students will gain more advantages from the current proposal, he said, which will concentrate students of the same age at each campus together with the teachers that have the most experience and credentials -- especially if class sizes rise significantly.

“What we need is for those grade-level teachers to work together and this gives them more opportunity to do that. If we were going to have to go to larger class sizes, then let’s go for it” and encourage more collaboration.

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