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Board studies option of a K-8 school

As the School Board agrees to buy three pieces of property for new schools, the discussion of a K-8 school gains immediacy.

By JEFFREY S. SOLOCHEK, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published November 25, 2002


Sandra Nicholson is convinced that middle schools as we know them are not in many children's best interest.

Adolescent youths get sucked into a larger, more impersonal institution where they must establish themselves in a new social structure just as they enter perhaps the hardest time of life, the Hernando County School Board member said.

Parents also seem to curtail their involvement in their kids' schooling, she said, despite research that shows parents are needed in middle school now more than ever.

For the past five years, Nicholson has talked occasionally about the need to create a kindergarten through eighth-grade school, which she contends will provide more continuity and community for children and their parents.

More often than not, the talk was informal. Usually, it centered on the distant prospect of building a new school in east Hernando.

The discussion gained some immediacy in recent weeks, though, as the School Board agreed to buy three pieces of property for new schools.

Now, superintendent Wendy Tellone wants know what type of buildings to plan so design work can start in January.

The School Board intends to decide Dec. 3.

Reaction so far has been mixed.

Board member Gail David argues the K-8 model is a failed relic of education past. Chairman John Druzbick is more open to the idea, but has some concerns about mixing 4-year-olds and 14-year-olds in buildings and buses.

He also wonders about the district's ability to provide both a middle school and elementary school environment under one roof.

"Am I totally against a K-8 concept? No," Druzbick said. "If it can be done in a good way . . . I don't really see much of a problem with it."

Hernando is not alone in this debate. And though K-8 schools are not the norm, they are gaining a foothold. Some examples are:

-- The struggling School District of Philadelphia decided to convert some middle schools to K-8 as part of its 2000 state-mandated improvement plan.

-- Prestigious Columbia University in New York and Rice University in Houston recently lent their names, expertise and financial support to establishing schools for best educational practices, and chose to do so in state-of-the-art K-8 schools.

-- The Cleveland Municipal School District began transforming schools to the K-8 concept four years ago to reduce social problems and improve academic results. The district started with four K-8 schools and now has 23.

"We have seen that the youngsters, by staying with their school, do better on tests and perform better than those who were in middle schools," spokeswoman Patricia Martin said. "We found significant gains among those youngsters who remained in the school, where everybody knew everybody and it was a more nurturing environment."

Middle schools gained popularity in the late 1960s amid dissatisfaction that junior high schools had become little more than miniature high schools, according to the Virginia Middle School Association. They focused on the educational and social needs of youngsters moving from childhood through adolescence, said Mary Metz, a University of Wisconsin professor of educational policy studies.

The schools came to offer the variety of subjects, activities and programs that middle school students want, but elementary school and high school kids do not, Metz said.

One potential problem with K-8 schools, she said, is they often cannot offer the facilities for programs that middle schools need.

But middle schools also are problematic. Children come there from several schools, Metz said, and they spend much time getting used to new cliques, teachers and buildings -- all of which takes away from academics.

If designed and administered well, a K-8 school can alleviate many of these problems, Metz said.

Linda Hardwick, principal of Forest Hill Parkway Elementary, one of Cleveland's first converted K-8 schools, sees the theory in action every day.

"You keep them (children) in the same environment, and they don't see any change and so their behaviors tend to stay the same," Hardwick said.

Research has shown that when children switch schools, their academic progress falters while they establish new relationships, she said.

"They do much better when the consistency is there," Hardwick said, noting that her sixth-graders outperform those in middle schools on Ohio's standardized tests.

Columbia University educators had a special mission -- creating a school good enough for professors' children -- and they chose the K-8 model after three years of planning.

"We felt very strongly that the separation is artificial and it promotes, really, a segregation that is not healthy for children," said Marc Meyer, executive director for the school's Center for Integrated Learning and Teaching. "Education should be a consistent, coherent experience," he said.

Rice University and the Houston Independent School District also selected the K-8 model for the Rice School/La Escuela Rice, a 1,100-student technology and foreign language magnet school.

Principal Jocelyn Mouton said the format allows children to learn from middle and elementary school teachers, starting at the earliest ages. Teachers accustomed to certain ages also have their peers as resources to improve their teaching, she said.

Eighth-graders learn responsibility and leadership by helping the younger children, Mouton said. And the littlest students admire the big ones.

The most important thing to remember, Mouton said, is to not make the oldest students feel like they never left elementary school.

That aspect is key, regardless of school setup, said Sue Swaim, executive director of the National Middle School Association. Children ages 10 to 14 "need academically challenging educational programs taught in a way that is developmentally appropriate," Swaim said.

Sometimes, she said, the move to K-8 is a quick fix for unpleasant middle school issues. Board members must consider the big picture -- education structures and needs of all age groups -- as they decide whether a K-8 school is in the district's best interest, she said.

Hardwick, the Cleveland principal, acknowledged that the model is not always easy, and it is not for everyone. Everything from teacher concerns to available space must fall into place, she said.

University of Wisconsin professor Metz agreed.

"The adults," she said, "have to do it right."

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