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Washington Voices

East Valley district moving to K-8 schools

Thu., March 31, 2011

The East Valley School District is asking voters to approve a $33.75 million school construction bond on April 26. The bond will be used to expand and renovate its primary schools.

But the issue many are debating is the district’s decision to eliminate its middle schools and turn its elementary schools into kindergarten through eighth grade schools, regardless of bond approval.

It’s a model that’s being considered across the country. Districts in Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Tennessee, Oklahoma, Maryland and New York – including the large urban areas of Cincinnati, Cleveland, Philadelphia and Baltimore – are moving toward K-8 schools.

In an article that appeared in the Fall 2010 edition of Education Next, researchers Jonah E. Rockoff and Benjamin B. Lockwood followed students in New York City from third grade through eighth grade from different school configurations.

“What we found bolsters the case for middle-school reform: In the specific year when students move to a middle school (or to a junior high), their academic achievement, as measured by standardized tests, falls substantially in both math and English relative to their counterparts who continue to attend a K-8 elementary school,” they wrote. They cited the cause of this as different school characteristics, “especially the fact that middle schools in New York City educate far more students in each grade.”

Residents in East Valley don’t have to look far for an example of a K-8 public school. Although Continuous Curriculum School is a choice school – it counts in its population students from East Valley and other districts – it is still a public K-8 school.

Principal Chiere Martyn said when she arrived at CCS she wasn’t a fan of the configuration.

“When I came here, I thought, ‘This is ridiculous. There is no way those kids belong here,’ ” she said. “It only took me a couple of years to realize how wrong I was about that. I’ve gone from thinking it was not a good model to believing it really is a good model, not for a select group of people, but that it really is a good model across the board.”

Many opponents to the K-8 plan have said having older students in the same building as the younger ones is a dangerous combination. But Martyn said her school puts higher expectations on its older students.

“We have actually set the tone that they have a responsibility to manage their behavior in such a way that they are an appropriate role model for younger kids,” Martyn said. “While you may be talking to your 13- or 14-year-old peers, you are standing in a hallway with a 6-year-old who comes out the door next to you.”

The school, which shares its building with Skyview Elementary, has been involving the older students in positive activities with the younger ones.

The Friendly Helpers is a group of fourth- through eighth-graders from both schools who look for students on the playground who may not be engaging with others. They make the younger students feel included, and the program helps resolve issues of bad behavior.

Tattling “that was going to the playground staff and the stuff that was leading to fights that was then trailing into the classrooms, this is in the hope to resolve some of those things, and I think that’s helped,” said Forrest Helt, counselor at both schools.

This year, Helt has started a big brother and big sister program that matches an older student with a younger one to spend time together.

“You’ve got fourth-graders going over to first-grade classrooms and helping with reading,” Helt said. “By the time they get to eighth grade, it’s old hat. They’re used to working with younger kids and being around them.”

Third-grade math teacher Claudia Porter appreciates the older students visiting her classroom to help. She said an older student will come in and take each student into the hallway to work one-on-one with them.

“The middle-school students can use a vocabulary or the way they talk,” Porter said. “It’s student to student. That’s just a whole different rapport than it is adult to student or teacher to student.”

The idea of K-8 schools is not a new concept. Trent and Otis Orchards in East Valley used to be K-8 schools. Many private schools in the area offer K-8.

Educational trends come and go. Locally, the Central Valley School District recently lost a bid to renovate its open-concept schools, which were popular in the late 1970s and early ’80s.

Although there have been many articles published in favor of a K-8 model, one study by Vaughn Byrnes and Allen Ruby of the Center for Organization of Schools at Johns Hopkins University offers a caveat to districts looking to make the change.

“We have found that K-8 schools do on average have higher levels of achievement. … Districts and schools eager to convert to the K-8 structure because of this advantage should not rush into any such policies but rather should reflect upon history. K-8, once the dominant school structure in the U.S. middle-grades landscape, have fallen out of fashion before, and they may yet do so again as the rush to revert to them is likely to leave many reformers disappointed.”

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