Conversations around the process, known as grade configuration, come on the heels of the 2018 adoption of the district’s strategic action plan, according to a mid-November letter to parents from Superintendent Jeannie Stone.
Within that plan was a recommendation by the facilities team to consider adopting a middle school model as a way to free up space at elementary schools, Stone explained. The move could also broaden sixth-grade access to extracurriculars, she added.
Such a significant change would have far-reaching implications for students across the district both academically and in terms of social and emotional development, Deputy Superintendent Tabitha Branum said.
The 45-member committee, which includes parents and educators, is taking its time to weigh pros and cons before making a recommendation to the board, she said.
“This kind of move impacts everything we do at both the elementary and secondary level, and we want to make sure it is developmentally appropriate,” Branum said at a Nov. 4 board meeting.
Making facility changes would also hinge on the passage of a potential bond in 2021. That is why a decision on whether to adopt a middle school model must be made before bond planning begins next summer.•
Throughout the state, junior high campuses with a two-grade configuration are becoming less common. According to data from the Texas Education Agency, 210 campuses in Texas serve grades seven and eight, while 1,277 campuses house grades six through eight. Twice before, RISD has explored adopting the more prevalent middle school model. Both times, the district opted not to make the change.
This time around, the district is considering demographic shifts and legislative changes that could cause capacity issues. Chief among them is the implementation of the district’s Pre-K For All Program, which kicked off this year. The program, required by state law, allows students who meet certain income requirements to attend full-day pre-K for free.
Pre-K half- and full-day enrollment now sits at 1,604 students, a year-over-year increase of 29%. The district projects that approximately 1,900 full-day seats will eventually be needed to accommodate expected enrollment for qualifying students.
The transition to full-day pre-K is expected to cause a domino effect as larger cohorts of students mature through grade levels.
The district’s long-standing philosophy is that elementary-age children should attend neighborhood schools rather than schools outside of their home attendance boundaries, Branum said. But as pre-K grows, it will become more difficult to honor that practice without facility changes, Branum said.
Moving sixth grade to junior high would open up space at elementary schools, Branum said. If that route is not taken, the district may consider adding onto existing schools or opting for dedicated pre-K centers, Branum said.
“The decision about where sixth grade resides has facilities implications in terms of how we support pre-K,” Branum said.
Notably vocal in the grade configuration discussion are stakeholders who say an extra year in middle school could help sixth-graders’ performance in extracurriculars, Assistant Superintendent Sandra Hayes said.
Compared to surrounding districts, RISD sixth-graders have limited access to fine arts programs at their home campuses. Junior high school band and orchestra teachers are required to travel to elementary schools for classes—sometimes in random spaces, such as cafeterias or teacher lounges, Hayes said.
This system has put a “tremendous toll” on RISD’s ability to recruit and retain fine arts staff, Branum said.
“That is taxing on them, and it causes us to lose a lot of our staff because they can go anywhere else and not have that schedule,” Branum said.
The same applies to athletics. A middle school model would allow coaches a chance to build relationships and assess the abilities of students one year earlier, Hayes said.
Proponents of the shift say that middle school students have expanded access to advanced programming, such as career and technical education.
But under RISD’s current system, their options are limited by what is available at the elementary level.
“Besides band and orchestra, most of those other things do not exist for our sixth-graders,” Branum said.
Adopting a middle school model could also advance the district’s goal of improving college readiness, Branum said. One of the strongest indicators of success in college is a student’s ability to take Algebra I by eighth grade, which typically requires enrollment in advanced math courses starting in sixth grade.
“We have more and more students and more and more parents who want to access those acceleration options, and not just in math—it’s in many different subject areas,” she said.
Under RISD’s current model, fifth- and sixth-graders enrolled in advanced courses are often transported to junior high campuses. That often puts added stress on students and parents and creates scheduling issues for schools.
Data indicates that major transitions, such as going from one teacher per day to seven or eight, can negatively affect academic performance, Branum said. RISD sixth-graders outperform their statewide peers on standardized tests, she said. But at the seventh grade level, their test scores take a hit.
“You are introducing a significant change to the student—a whole new learning environment, a whole new schedule. They’re being introduced to all new teachers, and it’s a lot, and all at a time when [they] are growing and changing,” she said.
A MAJOR CROSSROADS
Sixth grade is also often when children begin to mature physically and form individual identities, Branum said.
Some stakeholders have questioned whether sixth graders are socially and emotionally ready to join a middle school environment.
“Through those physical changes, they start to identify who they are, what they like, what they value and what their beliefs are,” she said. “They are trying to figure out their place in the world.”
Sixth-graders in middle school have more behavioral problems than their elementary school peers and are more susceptible to peer pressure from older teens, according to a study by Duke University.
However, adding an extra year to middle school may also foster a greater sense of accountability and community among students, who may be originating from as many as eight different elementary schools, Branum said.
“That two years is not a lot of time to cement those study skills as well as [to] connect and build relationships—not just with staff, but with friends,” she said.
Until 2004, junior high schools in RISD housed seventh- through ninth-grade students, which means those campuses were built for a three-grade configuration, Assistant Superintendent Hayes said.
However, due to population increases and changes to the way students are taught, junior highs would likely need “significant work” to prepare for an influx of sixth-graders, Hayes said.
“Numberwise, it would push capacity to their limit because we have more kids now in the district than we did when there were three grade levels at those campuses,” she said.
If the board were to vote to adopt a middle school model, facilities changes would have to be funded through a bond, Hayes said. The next bond proposition could go before voters in May 2021.
“Whether we want to add classrooms to every elementary for pre-K and leave the grade configuration as is or move the grade configuration and add to the junior highs—any of that would have to be in the bond,” she said.
Branum said the committee hopes to bring a recommendation to the board in the spring. But even if the board were to move forward with the grade reconfiguration, Hayes and Branum said sixth grade could not be fully implemented at junior high until 2025.
“We’re going to have to do some real research and really weigh the benefits ... to make a really educated decision about where we go from here,” Branum said.