Board eyes K-8 school model

Elizabeth Murray, Special to the Reporter
Jun. 28, 2012

Does the K-8 school configuration lead to more student success than the grade 6 through 8 middle school configuration? The Boston Public Schools Committee examined this question last Wednesday at the Edward Winter Chambers in Boston.

The featured speaker of the evening was Dr. Martin West, an assistant professor of education at Harvard School of Education. His research examined the success rates of students in both New York and Florida enrolled in K-8 schools versus those enrolled in middle schools. West said this subject does not normally receive much attention as many school districts seem to think the middle school configuration has always been employed.

“There’s actually been a lot of change over time,” West said during the hearing. “Traditionally the model was that there was a single K-8 school, later a high school added on top of that. . . In the 1960’s, the case was made for the advent of the middle school model serving students as young as grade 6. The case for these models was that adolescents had unique needs that would be best served by placing them in this school that was devoted specifically to addressing those needs.”

According to West’s research, there is a drop in student success rates during the transitions from a kindergarten through fifth (K-5) grade elementary school to a grades 6-8 middle school. Further, the students do not seem to recover from this drop as they advance through middle school, and in the case of West’s Florida research, even into high school. West also looked at the transition of students from K-6 schools to 7-8 middle schools and found the same drop, only this time at the transition from sixth to seventh grade.

“We know adolescence is a period in which students suffer from reduced motivation, from low self-esteem, from a poor ability to evaluate risks and consequences, decreased respect for authority,” West said. “All of these things could make students more difficult to educate. They might make that middle school transition particularly challenging.”

By examining the top 10 Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) scores in Reading and Math from grades three to eight in the BPS, the school committee found that only one 6-8 middle school – the Edwards Middle School in Charlestown – appeared in the data.

In 1995, the BPS had only three K-8 schools within its district. This figure increased to 11 by 2006, and previous school administrators laid the groundwork for more. BPS today boasts 26 K-8 schools in the district.

Superintendent Carol Johnson was mainly responding to feedback from families and people in the district who wanted the K-8 model in more schools, says Matthew Wilder, a spokesman for BPS. Wilder said that not all families prefer the K-8 model over the 6-8 configuration.

“We serve a lot of different families and students and we’ll never have a one-size-fits-all option,” Wilder said. “I think that we certainly are in a city where we hope that we’ll have a wide portfolio of schools and school options for families to choose from.”

Meg Campbell, a school committee member and founder and director of Codman Academy Charter Public School, said the school district should begin to make plans to transition more middle schools into K-8 schools. The east zone in particular, which includes Dorchester, has only six K-8 schools out of the total 26 schools in the district. She said that though the K-8 model definitely cannot be perfect, she does not see any disadvantages.

“The more I study, everything points toward K-8,” Campbell told the Reporter. “I think it’s not an accident that the parochial schools have always been K-8. Now just because you make a school K-8, that doesn’t make a great school. I think it can increase the collaboration, the school teacher alignment. . . If we do this in a synchronized manner, we’re not displacing anybody.”

Denise Snyder, senior director of the BPS Welcome Services, spoke at the hearing mainly about what she hears from parents when they are choosing the right school for their child. She said roughly half the population of new BPS families chooses K-8 schools while only 30 percent choose K-5 schools. She also said many parents fear the unknown and get nervous about any kind of transition, making K-8 schools the right medicine for minimal transitions.

“We need to maximize these opportunities for kids to stay together,” Snyder said. “There’s all sorts of advantages and disadvantages for kids who are going on different pathways. At the end of the day, there’s a real loss felt around when they’re not together and they’re navigating alone.”

Carolyn Kain, chair of the BPS Special Education Parent Advisory Council stressed the importance of maintaining not only academic development, but also social and emotional development. For students with disabilities, transitions are especially difficult and Kain said many of the students often do not get into exam or charter schools and have to transition from a K-5 elementary school to a 6-8 middle school.

Former teacher and graduate of the Harvard School of Education Maile Carter presented research from her graduate studies, stating that the majority of students currently enrolled in charter schools in Boston come from the BPS – about 60 percent. The majority of the students who leave the district schools transition in 5th and 6th grade.

“If we want students to stay in the district, providing parents with the option to send their students to K-8 schools may serve as incentive to keep students in the district,” Carter said.

During the principal panel portion of the hearing, Principal Eileen Nash of the Beethoven-Ohrenberger K-8 School in West Roxbury spoke about the school’s transition from a K-5 school to a K-8 school and how the school went from not being able to fill classroom seats to having a waiting list. Nash said the K-8 model helped foster vertical alignment of curricula and professional development of teachers together.

The K-8 model further turned the older students into role models for the younger students, Nash said. A mentoring program started by the school creates an environment where middle-school aged students help elementary aged students with conflict resolution during free time.

“The parents were really frightened that the younger kids would be amongst the older kids,” Nash said. “You don’t see the same type of discipline problems at a K-8 that you do see at the other middle schools, the reason being that the students, you embed in them their role [as] models. . . They take that role on honorably. I like to say that we keep the students in our buildings kids for as long as possible.”

In order for K-8 schools to ultimately succeed, there must be a total commitment by staff, families and administration to buy into the K-8 program, according to BPS teacher Valerie Bonds, who said she was representing the Mildred Avenue K-8 School in Mattapan and the Rafael Hernandez School in Roxbury. Though she would not name the school, Bonds testified that she recently saw a K-8 school split into a K-3 school and a 4-8 school because the commitment was missing.

“My fear is that if we do not make sure that the leadership, the staff, and the parental involvement are as high as potential, the K-8 model that is so successful will . . . fail,” Bonds said.

In a sit-down with neighborhood reporters last month, Mayor Thomas Menino expressed support for the model.

“I think every school should be a K to 8,” he said. “We should try to make all of our schools K to 8.”

But “some of our buildings aren’t big enough for K to 8,” he said, adding that “parents lose faith in the system when they get to the sixth, seventh, eighth grade. They don’t like that middle school thing.”