Jefferson County Schools

Shift eyed at Jeffco middle schools

Plan to move sixth-graders into middle school in coming years

Crystal Anderson
Posted 9/12/16

Three years ago, Mitchell Elementary in Golden became a K-5 school, shifting its sixth graders over to Bell Middle School.

The move has been a good one, Mitchell Principal Samantha Hollman said.

“It strengthened our K-5 curriculum,” she …

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Jefferson County Schools

Shift eyed at Jeffco middle schools

Plan to move sixth-graders into middle school in coming years


Three years ago, Mitchell Elementary in Golden became a K-5 school, shifting its sixth graders over to Bell Middle School.

The move has been a good one, Mitchell Principal Samantha Hollman said.

“It strengthened our K-5 curriculum,” she said. “And our middle school teachers are content-driven, so kids were not only given the opportunity to have content specialists, but also electives that we can’t offer here … They have more choices.”

The reconfiguration of middle schools in Jefferson County to include sixth grade is a key initiative in what school district officials describe as a way to better utilize existing facilities, alleviate overcrowding at the elementary school level and give students more educational and recreational opportunities.

But although school officials say nearly 75 percent of sixth-graders across the country attend a sixth- through eighth-grade middle school, the change has some Jeffco parents asking about social and educational effects of the transition.

Reasons for the shift

Overall, the district has about 6,500 sixth-grade students in elementary, middle school and K-8 buildings. Reconfiguring middle schools to include sixth grade would affect about 5,000 sixth graders. Some of those students will feed into the Alameda and Jefferson area schools, which house students in seventh through 12th grades in one school.

Of the district’s 17 middle schools, five already include sixth graders. The district also has three K-8 schools, which will remain as they are, according to the district’s plans.

The Chatfield High School feeder area will move sixth graders from its seven elementaries to middle schools in the 2017-18 school year. The rest of the district’s K-6 schools would make the change in the 2018-19 school year, if a bond measure this November passes.

“This gives us the opportunity to not only leverage our facilities, but to really wrap our supports around our sixth graders and make middle school a really good experience for everyone involved,” said Terry Elliott, chief school effectiveness officer for Jeffco Public Schools.

The Jeffco Board of Education approved the middle school plan this summer as part of its Facilities Master Plan, which calls for $535 million in capital renovation and construction costs for the district’s 155 schools.

In August, the school board approved placing a bond measure and mill levy override on the November ballot, for a total tax request of $568 million. The additional tax revenue would pay for capital needs listed in the facilities plan, along with teacher compensation costs, new mental health staff and a number of other school-based program improvements. Approximately $100 million would be specifically for the sixth-grade shift.  
If the bond should fail, district sources say they will continue to move sixth graders to middle schools, but would have to evaluate where and when that change would be most fiscally feasible.

“In the end, the grade configuration is not as important as what is happening in the classroom and at the school,” Elliot said. “And we see this as a way to really make the middle experience a really enjoyable one for our students.”

Benefits to change

Education experts say most middle schools across the country are gravitating to the sixth- through eighth-grade middle school structure.

But “it’s more than just slapping a new grade in the building,” said Dru Tomlin, director of middle-level services at the Association for Middle Level Education, an international organization focused on advancing education for students ages 10 to 15. “It’s about what you do when the students get in there.”

The best middle school environments provide programs and teachers with the educational tools to meet young adolescents’ needs, Tomlin and Elliott said.

A key structure to making sure that happens is an advisement program or small learning community in which each teacher meets regularly with 12 to 15 students, developing relationships that help those students thrive, said Tomlin, a former middle school principal and elementary school assistant principal.

That means “some sort of class like that or some sort of curriculum that responds to their social, emotional and behavioral needs,” he said. “At this age, kids are neurologically hooked up to take risks and to make questionable decisions …That teacher is seen and becomes the adult advocate for those young adolescents.”

Other key elements include a disciplinary system based on positive reinforcement rather than punishment, programs supporting social and emotional growth, and opportunities that begin readying students for college and careers, which often can’t be done in a K-6 setting, Tomlin and Elliott said.

“Students may accelerate and enrich their learning, there’s content expertise to help students play catch-up if they’re behind, and they have more electives and academic opportunities ...,” Elliott said of a 6-8 model. “Behaviorally, there are more academic counselors and social emotional learning specialists — a specialized counselor for students.”

Parent’s views

Parent concerns about the change have included worries about placing younger children in an older environment, the cost and the potential disruption to current sixth-grade teachers.

Diana Wilson, spokeswoman for the district, said that sixth-grade teachers will have a choice of moving up to the middle school level or looking for new positions at their elementary, or within the district.

“This transition is not expected to result in a reduction in the teaching force as we will have the same number of students in our schools,” Wilson said.

For a number of parents, the transition seems positive, based on the range of programming middle schools can provide.

Cindy Pearson, the mother of a middle schooler and an educational tutor, said that in her experience, moving sixth graders up to the older school can work, if handled properly. Her own middle schooler attended Bell Middle School for sixth grade.

“In Bell Middle School, sixth graders were grouped together in a certain part of the school to decrease travel time between classes and help them feel like they were part of the sixth-grade family,” Pearson said.

But several parents of children with special needs, such as autism, strongly oppose the change in grade structure.

Erin Aggus is the mother of a sixth-grade student with autismin Jefferson County.

“The 6-8 middle school model can be very harmful for kids like my son,” she said in an email. “Due to the fact that there really is no official program for the ‘high-functioning’ kids beyond sixth grade, moving to this model takes away another year of support that they would normally receive before entering middle school.”

Donna Nemer, whose sixth-grade son also has autism and attends Betty Adams Elementaryin Westminster, agreed. She says the district has a definite lack of strong programming at the middle school level for students like her son. She opposes any district plan that would force students like hers out of trusted elementary-level special education program a year early.

“Nowhere is it spelled out how that $100 million in bond money, for the sixth-grade transition, would be used to help our kids,” Nemer said.

When asked about the availability of services for special education students, Elliott said the district already has several campuses where sixth graders with special needs are being served. He also said the district had begun a new evaluation of the district’s special education services, to help ensure all students, no matter where they are located, are served well.

While only one district middle school (Sobesky) currently has an autism-specific learning center, Wilson said all the district’s schools have access to specialists who can be brought to a given campus to help meet all special education students’ needs.

Tomlin of the Association for Middle Level Education noted that parent input, whether positive or critical, is key to ensuring the best possible learning environment.

“The good thing is parents care,” he said. “I get worried — not about the squeaky wheel — I get worried when the wheel no longer squeaks.”

New possibilities

East Coast transplant Katie Winner moved with her two children to west Arvada and said she purposefully chose to enroll her first grader and fourth grader at Mitchell Elementary, specifically because they would get to move up to Bell Middle School in sixth grade.

“In middle school, from what I can see, there’s just going to be more options, a broader range of electives,” Winner said.

In particular, the sixth-eighth grade STEM program at Bell was interesting to her, but she also liked the increased foreign language and arts opportunities.

Winner said she has a hard time judging how mature her fourth-grade son will be in two years, and how ready he will or won’t be for the rigors of middle school. The district has earned her faith, though, with outreach about the sixth-grade shift, such as through a telephone town hall held earlier this spring, she said.

“I really trust in the school district to make this a thoughtful transition.” said Winner. “There definitely feels like there’s a concerted effort in Jeffco to make parents feel like they’re involved in a meaningful way.”

For Rob Hoover, principal at Deer Creek Middle School in south Jefferson County, the inclusion of sixth-graders has been positive. The school added most of its area sixth graders in the fall of 2014, starting a STEM program at the same time.

Choices can excite families, staff and students about new possibilities, Hoover said.

“Having some diversity of age is a valuable thing for a school,” he said. “I don’t think anyone would argue that middle school presents a rough time for kids, and I think it’s taken a long time to get people accustomed to the fact that sixth graders are ready … In my experience, the question is not `Why are we doing this?’ — it’s `Why haven’t we done this?’ ”

sixth grade, middle school, Jeffco, bond, autism, Bell Middle, Crystal Anderson


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