Site-council backs 6th-grade move

By Heidi Zemach for Seward City News

Middle School Principal Jason Bickling addresses gathering at last month's meeting on the topic. Heidi Zemach photo
Middle School Principal Jason Bickling addresses gathering at last month’s meeting on the topic. Heidi Zemach photo

The Seward Site-Based Council, which advises the Kenai Peninsula Board of Education on Seward school matters, voted unanimously last Thursday night to recommend that the board reconfigure the school staffing to allow the sixth-grade class to move into Seward Middle School.

That option would boost the middle-school’s enrollment, and thereby increase the number of core teachers, electives, and sports-related activities that could occur at the school. These options were dwindling due to low student enrollment. If next year’s enrollment continues to decline as projected, electives would be all-but eliminated, administrators had argued. Core subject teachers would be stretched thinner, and they would continue to have to cover library and P.E. duties, while the principal would also assume teaching duties.

The non-binding site council vote on March 21st came shortly after the March 18th deadline for participation in an online community survey about all six staffing options presented, which had 226 respondents. Respondents included 94 (non-teaching) parents/guardians, 47 community members, 45 students, 27 teachers (who aren’t parents) and 13 non-teacher employees.   Each rated the options in terms of how strongly they agreed or disagreed with the scenarios presented, with 1 meaning they Strongly Agreed and 5 being they Strongly Disagreed.

There were 6 options:

–         Status Quo (K-6, 7-8, 9-12)

–         Reconfiguration (K-5, 6-8, 9-12)

–         Reconfiguration (K-6, 7-9, 10-12)

–         Reconfiguration (K-8, 9-12)

–         Reconfiguration (K-2, 3-8, 9-12)

–         Reconfiguration (K-6, 7-12)

Some 51 percent of respondents strongly agreed with the reconfiguration that moved the sixth grade into the middle school, and 22 percent simply agreed, bringing the total combined agreement to 165. By contrast, 12 percent strongly disagreed, and 6 percent simply disagreed with that option, bringing the combined number of people in disagreement to 39.

Participating teachers, employees and students were close in numbers in agreeing to the sixth grade move, with only a slightly lower buy-in by community members and parents.


Seward’s three principals had promised at a community meeting last month that parents, staff and community members would be afforded the opportunity to discuss their feelings about the effects of moving sixth-graders into a middle school setting on their children and their learning. But the district survey questions focused soley on the administrator’s previously-stated implications on staffing, electives and activities, rather than on the more social implications of the move.

The middle school debate team offered that aspect of the debate by providing a 30-minute parliamentary-style debate on the pros and cons of the move during the site-council meeting.* (go to next page for more details.)

Although local administrators, such as SHS Principal Trevan Walker believe the proposed change could be made as soon as the coming fall with swift administration and board approval, Joe Arness, the board of education president told this reporter a move of this kind is generally a much slower process.

Ayla Lapinskas, Creeana Whitcome and Kaylee Brockman rehearse the "Con" side. Heidi Zemach photo.
Ayla Lapinskas, Creeana Whitcome and Kaylee Brockman rehearse the “Con” side. Heidi Zemach photo.

Using research they had gathered during over 10 hours of preparation, the two student teams presented the pros and cons of moving 6th graders into a middle school setting.

Middle School Debaters Ayla Lapinskas, Creeana Whitcome and Kaylee Brockman, speaking against the move, painted a grim picture, bolstered both by research, and testimony given at similar public meetings elsewhere in the U.S.

Sixth-grade middle school student’s grades and standardized test scores are lower than those remaining in elementary school, thus potentially making it difficult for a middle school to achieve annual yearly progress, or AYP, they said. When sixth graders join middle school some will develop behavior problems, become distant from parents, suffer low self-esteem, and may get into physical fights with students who are larger and stronger than they are, they said. They also become caught up in middle-school sexual tension and drama earlier. They mature more quickly, and can become sexually active earlier, possibly leading to teen pregnancy and dropping out of high school, ruining their chances of getting a diploma and a better career.

Joel Williamson, and Heidi Zemach
Joel Williams, standing, rehearses with Alden Hamilton and Jonah DeBoard. Heidi Zemach photo

Debaters on the Pro-side, Alden Hamilton, Joel Williams and Jonah DeBoard pointed to a University of Illinois study found that found sixth grade students who had moved up to middle school, felt happier, and felt they were learning more than they had before, they said. Some 73 percent felt more confident after learning from teachers accredited as experts in one particular subject, than from the generalized instruction that they received in elementary school.

Socially, being in middle school gives students more independence, more freedom, and a feeling of being trusted and respected more by adults, they said. Therefore, they become more confident, and develop greater self-esteem and a better ability to adapt to high school.

Although their test scores overall may diminish while in middle school, they appear to rise to even higher levels once in high school, they added.  A study in Phoenix, San Diego and San Jose in 2011 found that children who had moved up to middle school a year earlier had a 7.8 percent higher standardized test practice score in their first year of high school than those who stayed in elementary school in the sixth grade.




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