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Major changes around corner for Spokane middle schools

Jan. 26, 2019 Updated Wed., Jan. 30, 2019 at 9:09 a.m.

Grant Elementary School sixth graders Eva Katruska, Jaclynn Gomez, Htoothblee Paw and Milona Moore delve into science book and study earthquake terminology in Ryan Foley's morning class on Feb. 16, 2016, in Spokane. Spokane Public Schools are planning to move sixth graders to middle schools partly as a result of the passage in November 2018 of a bond that will pay to build new middle schools. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
Grant Elementary School sixth graders Eva Katruska, Jaclynn Gomez, Htoothblee Paw and Milona Moore delve into science book and study earthquake terminology in Ryan Foley's morning class on Feb. 16, 2016, in Spokane. Spokane Public Schools are planning to move sixth graders to middle schools partly as a result of the passage in November 2018 of a bond that will pay to build new middle schools. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

Spokane Public Schools will soon make major changes in the landscape of its middle schools, and they have more to do with new attitudes than state-of-the-art buildings.

Now students will enjoy both.

Months before voters approved a $495 million capital bond – about three-quarters of which is earmarked for six middle school buildings – a 20-member committee was laying the foundation for the future.

The biggest change – and the main reason to build those schools in the first place – is the addition of sixth-graders to all middle schools.

It’s a complicated process, involving parents, staff and administrators, and the work is just beginning.

“We wanted to make sure that we are very intentional about coming up with a thoughtful process of adding sixth-graders to those middle schools,” said Adam Swinyard, the district’s chief academic officer.

Last week, Swinyard presented a comprehensive plan for the next generation of middle schools, and the school board unanimously approved them.

The three-year middle school model has been prevalent in most of the nation since the 1970s but only recently got the go-ahead in Spokane.

The move is a response to feedback gained last year by a district grade configuration committee. Faced with the prospect of building five new elementary schools to alleviate overcrowding, it received input from more than 3,700 people on three major configurations.

By an overwhelming margin – 91 percent – respondents favored the first option, which also is used by about two-thirds of school districts in the United States.

There were other reasons.

Faced with a state requirement to lower class sizes for kindergarten through third grade, Spokane Public Schools was presented with a window of opportunity.

The McCleary court decision, which mandated greater state funding of public education, offered a lower tax bill for local residents and thus paved the way for the new middle school model.

Passage of the bond means a transformative experience in a few years for roughly one-third of the nearly 30,000 students in Spokane Public Schools: The youngest would thrive in smaller classrooms, while sixth-graders are more likely to do the same in a three-year setting, according to school administrators.

The model rose to prominence in the 1970s. Besides the curriculum advantages, educators say that as a result of better nutrition and socioeconomic conditions, today’s youngsters reach adolescence earlier.

They also believe that a three-year middle school would enhance some students’ sense of belonging. Others would get a fresh start a year earlier than before, shedding old labels, making new friends and being introduced to different teaching styles.

Even before passage of the bond, committee members held community forums at all district middle schools.

“We had really overwhelmingly positive feedback,” Swinyard said. “We didn’t really hear anything that we didn’t already see in those surveys.”

Since then, the district’s Middle School Design Work-Group crafted four main areas: School Core Academic Principles, Elective Offerings Principles; Culture and Environmental Principles, and Activities and Athletics Principles.

“The group went by category,” Swinyard said. “We wanted to create something that is consistent and flexible.”

Among the key guidelines are to:

    Support accelerated course options, classroom differentiation and additional minutes for literacy and math interventions.

    Focus elective course curriculum design on attributes of healthy lifestyles, college awareness and career exploration.

    Offer a variety of opportunities in fifth and sixth grade to help students transition and adjust to middle school.

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