LASD re-examines middle school model

During a study session March 13, the Los Altos School District Board of Trustees didn’t quite go back to the drawing board, but called for new research before making a decision on the long-running debate over whether to move sixth-grade students to junior high campuses to form middle schools with grades 6-8.

The board listened to a presentation and recommendations from a special committee on grade-level configuration. The 18-member committee, comprising administrators, principals, parents and junior high and elementary teachers, has been studying the potential benefits and pitfalls of the sixth-grade move since early 2011. Five years ago, the committee recommended that the district go ahead with moving sixth-graders, but at the time, facilities obstacles stymied such a shift.

“We don’t necessarily want to re-create the work that has been done,” Assistant Superintendent Sandra McGonagle said of revisiting the discussion. “A lot of work has been done over the years.”

Recommending change

At the study session, the committee again recommended that the best placement for sixth-graders would be in middle schools, citing research by an EdSource and Stanford University team that found no clear association between grade configuration and higher performance. More important than whether sixth-graders were part of elementary or middle schools, the study revealed, were strategies such as a focus on academic outcomes, the use of data to improve teacher practice and adequate resources.

Committee members cited anticipated benefits of the move, including giving sixth-graders access to staff explicitly dedicated to meeting the developmental needs of preadolescents, reducing the burden on sixth-grade teachers to teach deeply across multiple subjects and expanding elective offerings at the middle schools with the greater number of students and staff.

If the district were to move forward with the middle school model, McGonagle said, the committee projected a two-year transition period. During those years, she noted, staff would work to address facilities and personnel issues, and to ensure that “our fifth-graders who would become our first sixth-graders have a great end-of-elementary experience.”

“It would be a tricky transition, but not one we couldn’t make sure was really special for all of our students,” McGonagle said. “We would like it to be more than just sticking them onto our junior high campus.”

Pros and cons

Trustees asked the committee for more information on how the move would affect the annual budget and on the potential negative impacts on students’ social-emotional well-being, and reviewed projections for how it would boost the total enrollment numbers at Blach Intermediate and Egan Junior High schools while shrinking them at the elementary schools.

“My worry is that they get lost” at a larger middle school, Trustee Jessica Speiser said. “Especially the ones that aren’t socially, emotionally ready for it.”

Laurel McNeil, sixth-grade teacher at Oak Avenue School, said she could see a possible positive consequence of the larger student body at junior highs.

“When you broaden the pool of students, like find like,” she said. “The shy kids are going to find each other. The ones who need more challenge are going to as well.”

Under the current system, McNeil said, in which students have been together since kindergarten, it’s harder for a kid to get past his or her grudge against the classmate who stole their pencil in first grade.

“(A larger middle school) gives them an opportunity to change,” she said.

Parent perspectives

Local parents who attended the session voiced both opposition and support for the middle school model, some armed with data from other studies that contradicted the committee’s conclusion that sixth-graders are just as well off when grouped with older students.

Those opposed cited concerns that a 750-student middle school would overwhelm shy students, be less nurturing, increase academic pressure and exclusivity, or expose them to an illicit party culture at a young age.

Another parent took an opposing view, noting that moving the sixth-graders could protect them from relational bullying, because children struggling socially in extremely small cohorts may have “nowhere else to go” if one social group turns sour. In addition, she said parents at her school felt that kids were “climbing up the walls” by sixth grade and needed more challenge and stimulation.

McNeil, who has served on committees for grade configuration three times over the years, said she hoped the community would be willing to make the move this time.

“We live in Los Altos, in this amazing place with these amazing people,” she said. “This is about as safe as it gets” for taking a risk in the name of innovation.

No decision yet

Trustee Steve Taglio said the committee’s 2011 findings were now dated, and requested that members study recent third-party research on grade configuration.

“We need to revalidate our findings based on current frameworks,” board President Sangeeth Peruri concurred.

Peruri asked the committee to collect student and parent input.

“I think very highly of the kids in this community and want to hear what they think,” he said.

The board and staff did not set a timeline for when trustees should decide on the sixth-grade question. Superintendent Jeff Baier said he did not think the two years of transition planning would begin in the 2017-2018 school year.

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