By Heidi Zemach for SCN -
The Kenai Peninsula Borough Board of Education will hold another public hearing next Thursday, October 24th at Seward Middle School to address the proposal to reconfigure Seward Middle School to include the sixth grade class. At a recent site-council meeting in Seward with Dr. Atwater, the superintendent saw that apparently some disagreement over the proposed move still exists, and decided another public hearing might help the board’s decision-making process.
“The next step in the process is for me to make a recommendation to the Board that either supports, or does not support this request,” said Atwater. “Before doing so, I will hold a public hearing regarding this proposal on Thursday, October 24, at 7:00 P.M. at Seward Middle School. The Seward and Moose Pass public, including staff and students, are invited to provide comment on this matter at this time. The hearing will be recorded so that the Board can, as necessary, view it.”
The public hearing is part of a decision-making process that began with discussions among the three school principals and district administration in the spring of 2012 to address problems of low enrollment at the middle school level. The fallout from that fact included core teachers stretched thinner, fewer elective offerings, and sports related activities being cancelled for lack of students. If the low enrollment trend continued, the principals said, core teachers at the middle school would continue to have to cover library and P.E. duties, because the district would not fund those positions due to its enrolment-based formula of hiring staff. Meanwhile the principal would also assume teaching duties, thus impacting his abilities to be principal of both the middle school and Moose Pass School.
The administrator’s discussions were followed by a public hearing in Seward, and an online poll of teachers, parents and residents. Both the hearing and survey focused on six possible staffing options, and what they would mean for each school, primarily in terms of staff, electives and sports options. The online survey had 226 responses. Other options presented included moving Kindergarten through second grade into the middle school building, and making the elementary school grades 3-8; moving the ninth grade down to the middle school to increase its numbers; and closing the middle school altogether.
Fifty-one percent of all survey respondents said they “strongly agreed” with the option that principals preferred–moving the sixth grade into the middle school, and 22 percent more merely “agreed,” bringing the total combined agreement to 165. By contrast, 12 percent “strongly disagreed,” and 6 percent of respondents “disagreed” with that option, bringing that total to 39. The other options received lower vote counts generally.
On March 21st, three days after the survey deadline, the site-based council voted unanimously in favor of the sixth grade reconfiguration option. One board member, Amy Hankins, a parent, subsequently changed her vote, however, having initially felt pressured to vote with the majority. She also wrote to the board that that the principals should not be voting members of the site-based council, an advisory board, due to their undue influence in that process. Other representatives include teachers in the schools they lead, and parents with children in their schools. The decision was made without due consideration paid to the socialization concerns of younger children being placed with older ones in full-blown adolescence, or to studies that show a drop in the grades and self-esteem of sixth-graders when schools are reconfigured, she said.
At a subsequent Board of Education meeting in Seward, near the end of the school year, longtime elementary school teacher Mark Fraad, who is also the National Education Association representative for region three, also spoke up about what he viewed as a process that he felt was fast-tracked, and lacked consideration of the psychological effects and learning environment that the proposed move might have on sixth-grade students. He asked that the entire process be revisited with the help of a third-party mediator.
Meanwhile, for the current school year, things are going well. About 77 students are enrolled in the middle school in grades 7 and 8. Prior to the summer the district agreed to fund an additional half-time position; and the high school agreed to transfer one of its own half-time employee for use at the middle school so all core classes would be offered by highly qualified teachers; Principal Jason Bickling also kept his duties as principal this year, and does not have to teach classes; and a new elective—Lego Robotics, a vocational grant-funded program, was added to those offered, and community members were trained to teach it.