Sixth-grade shift moves ahead in Jeffco

The change will align the district with the majority of the country

Posted 11/7/17

When parent Darcie Weiser first heard of Jeffco’s intent to move sixth-grade students to middle school, she was not a fan.

In 2014, her son was a fifth-grader at Meiklejohn Elementary in Arvada when the talk of moving sixth-grade students from …

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Sixth-grade shift moves ahead in Jeffco

The change will align the district with the majority of the country

Posted

When parent Darcie Weiser first heard of Jeffco’s intent to move sixth-grade students to middle school, she was not a fan.

In 2014, her son was a fifth-grader at Meiklejohn Elementary in Arvada when the talk of moving sixth-grade students from elementary to middle school came up at that school. To her, it seemed like a “knee-jerk” reaction to needing more space, rather than a thoughtful transition of students.

The change didn’t happen. Weiser was relieved.

But after a few years of being a middle school parent, with that son attending Manning Option School, she has a new excitement about her daughter, who is in sixth-grade now, entering middle school.

“I have come full circle, so to speak, on the transition and have considered it through different lenses,” Weiser said. “Our middle school experience has been so wonderful. I really believe that sixth grade would’ve been good for her to have at the middle school.”

An estimated 3,355 incoming sixth-grade students in Jefferson County Public Schools will move from elementary to middle schools districtwide next year, a shift district officials say will better utilize building space and expand academic offerings.

MORE: District says sixth grade shift makes sense for classroom capacity

The change, announced more than a year ago, will bring the state’s second largest school district into alignment with how most Colorado districts and the nation split up elementary and middle school grades. A few schools, with K-8 and 7-12 grade configurations, will remain as they are.

The shift, however, still surprised some parents and community members.

“The decision was made in June 2016 by the board, but there’s been a lot of waffling with transition in leadership last year and some people may have dismissed it,” said Michele DeAndrea Austin, principal at Bell Middle School in Golden, explaining that when voters rejected the bond and mill levy in November 2016, some may have thought the sixth-grade shift wouldn’t go forward because of a lack of funding.

But the transition of sixth-graders to middle school has been on the district’s radar for almost a decade.

Marcia Anker, who started in July as the district’s sixth-grade transition coordinator, said some Jeffco schools individually started asking to make the change more than 10 years ago and other middle schools have already been allowed to start enrolling sixth-graders.

The mountain-area schools started the 6-8 model in the mid-1990s and various schools throughout the district have enrolled sixth-graders throughout the years to deal with overcrowding at feeder elementary schools and to offer specialized choice-in programs, such as STEM.

Bell Middle School in Golden is one of them.

Bell started servicing sixth-graders five years ago when the neighborhood surrounding Mitchell Elementary, one of its feeder schools, experienced a lot of growth.

The school had space and welcomed about 100 sixth-graders. The following year, Bell created a STEM program, which allowed sixth-graders to choice-in to the school. Now about 150 sixth-grade students call Bell home.

“I see a lot more advantages than challenges,” DeAndrea Austin said. “With three years, there’s more buy-in to the school, community, students and learning. With sixth-grade coming, we will have more opportunity to create community pride and build more relationships.”

The districtwide transition next year will bring an additional 300 students to Bell next year in both sixth and seventh grades from all their feeder schools.

Weiser is excited about the community and challenge that she believes her daughter will experience as a middle schooler, a challenge she could have used this year as a sixth-grader at an elementary school.

“My daughter craves challenge,” Weiser said. “Her teachers do a great job in elementary, but there would be even more opportunity to advance in things like math and language arts — where she’s really looking for hard work.”

Math is one area of advancement being cited by many district staff as an advantage of sixth-grade students being in a middle school setting.

“With math at the middle school, we have opened up so many opportunities to accelerate if needed,” DeAndrea Austin said.

If students in sixth grade are excelling in math above their grade level, they will now have the option to be accelerated to seventh-grade math, if appropriate.

“Middle is set up for more opportunities for kids, more electives and more levels for math,” said Rob Hoover, principal at Deer Creek Middle School in the Chatfield articulation area. “There are things that we can provide more easily than a sixth-grade teacher at elementary can.”

But some critics of the shift say that moving sixth-graders to middle school will actually hurt students because test scores are lower.

Jeffco does see a drop in CMAS scores from sixth grade to seventh grade. In 2016-17 41 percent of sixth graders met or exceeded expectations and in seventh grade it drops to 33 percent. There is another drop in achievement in students taking grade-level eighth-grade math, however the score for students taking algebra, geometry and algebra 2 soar.

This district has admitted this gap is an area of needed improvement, but says shifting sixth graders shouldn’t hurt their individual test scores.

“Empirical research tells us that the impact on student achievement is inconclusive,” Anker said. “We have no reason to believe student achievement will be negatively impacted by this change in configuration. The larger body of evidence does not favor either the K-6 or the 6-8 model.”

Anker said there is no ploy to artificially improve middle school test scores and that the district is focused on creating the best possible educational environment for students.

The Chatfield articulation area moved all sixth-graders to middle school this year — a year ahead of the districtwide shift.

Deer Creek Middle started accepting sixth-graders four years ago as an option-in to the STEM program it runs in conjunction with Bell. This is the first school year for a full house of sixth-graders.

“We had capacity and there was interest in the sixth-grade program from the community already,” Hoover said. “Having a program like STEM benefited a lot from having more time with kids to develop those skills.”

Hoover, like other area principals, said having students in the same building for three years instead of two is a big advantage.

“A two-year middle school is often viewed as a bridge and it’s harder to get parent involvement and for students to feel like part of a learning community,” Hoover said.

One of the challenges, he said, is helping students adjust to the structure of a middle school.

“The transition for sixth-graders needs to be thoughtful,” Hoover said. “The goal is not to turn them into seventh-graders a year early. It’s to help them become seventh-graders over the course of the year.”

That transition is one reason Hoover launched the New Beginnings summer program in which incoming students visit the school, are assigned lockers and learn how to open them, get their schedule and become comfortable with the new school.

“It gives a comfort level as they make that transition,” Hoover said of the program.

John White, principal of Wayne Carle Middle School in Westminster, is looking to implement a similar program — Six Months to Middle School — as his school prepares for sixth-graders next school year.

At 12 years old, Wayne Carle is the newest neighborhood middle school in Jeffco and has a smaller enrollment than most with an October count estimated at 425 students in seventh and eighth grades.

School staff is in the preparation stage of the transition, White said. They have formed a committee that meets monthly and will work on creating community outreach for new parents and students. Interest nights have been scheduled after Thanksgiving break.

The Six Months to Middle School program will establish a set of experiences and activities staff believes will get parents and families ready to start at the new school.

White said the Wayne Carle building, like most middle school buildings in Jeffco, was built to support a traditional middle school model, so there is plenty of space for incoming students.

Parent Krista Burczyk said attending parent nights has helped her become comfortable with her son, who will be in sixth grade next year, being a middle-schooler.

“At first I was pretty skeptical,” Burczyk said. “I was worried about sixth graders being so young and the maturity difference between them and eighth-graders.”

But through the parent nights and gathering information from the district, Burczyk said she now sees the positives of being in the same school for three years instead of two and the increased amount of electives and academics offered at the middle level.

Some critics continue to voice concerns about the plan, saying that the millions of dollars spent to implement the transition will result in a questionable benefit for students’ educations.

Lakewood resident Peggy Ralph said her biggest concern has been the limited community engagement surrounding the school board’s decision to move forward with the shift.

“They held meetings over the summer knowing that there would be very low attendance,” Ralph said of the district.

District officials, however, say parents are getting their questions answered and educators are hearing fewer concerns.

Most concerns from parents center around what happens throughout the school day, such as interactions with older kids, Hoover said.

For Burczyk, this is where questions have not been answered.

Logistical information like how much interaction the sixth-grade students have with the older kids, where their lockers are in comparison to other grade levels and when lunch will be are still unanswered for her.

“Those little pieces can make or break a situation,” Burczyk said. “I realize it’s early, but as a parent, I think back to those really horrible moments in between classes — those times where behavioral problems can go up.”

At Deer Creek, Hoover said the interactions between the younger and older students have actually boosted moral within his school.

“It’s interesting that a lot of the community concern is rooted in what the impact of eighth-graders will have on sixth-graders,” Hoover said.“But it really works the opposite. The impact of having younger students in the building provides an opportunity for leadership and mentorship that’s hard to do when talking a one-year age difference.”

Deer Creek has used this relationship to create a mentorship program within the school, which positions eighth-grade students to work as peer support for sixth-graders.

Even Ralph, who opposes the districtwide shift, likes that benefit.

“I loved the idea of the junior high being mentored by the high school students, not in the same classes or hallways but in being able to see what comes after junior high and that what they do actually matters for high school,” Ralph said of her experience when her children attended D’Evelyn Junior/Senior High. “We saw them push themselves in math and science so they could enter high school at a higher level and stronger.”

But Ralph and community members worry about students who have previously attending elementary schools with federal Title I funding, loosing services, which provide extra academic supports; and special education students losing center programs, which provide extra support for students on the autism spectrum as well special education students who need more specialized supports.

“I hope the district pays attention to those receiving special needs services and gifted services,” said Burczyk, whose son is gifted and talented. “Making sure our populations of kids really impacted by change are taken care of and that everyone is OK when that happens is important.”

Burczyk said as a parent of a child receiving services, there is an additional level of urgency to make sure needs are met when there are big shifts like this one.

“The shift in general causes some anxiety for those families,” Burczyk said. “My son will be a guinea pig.”

GT programs are offered at various middle schools throughout Jeffco, and students may apply to attend one.

Special education students who receive one-on-one supports or are low functioning will also have the opportunity to apply for an established middle school center program with recommendation through their individualized education plan. There are seven center programs available for students with level three significant support needs, the most severe students.

According to the district, special education partners will work with schools that will be sending and receiving students to include support in communicating with parents and preparing students for the transition, much like they have done for sixth-graders transitioning to seventh grade at middle schools in the past.

Middle schools have also been allocated an additional half-time position to support students transitioning out of center programs.

But there is still some concern from parents of special education students about the supports for high functioning students.

Most autism spectrum disorder centers are housed at elementary schools. There is only one middle school ASD-only program in the district, located at Sobesky Academy, a school-wide program designed to meet the intensive emotional, behavioral, and related academic needs of students with identified emotional disabilities.

But parent Erin Dempsey, of Wheat Ridge, worries about high functioning autism students falling through the cracks in the transition.

According to the district, as students progress through various types of center programs at the elementary level, the goal is to help them continually move toward increasing levels of independence, both academically and behaviorally. By the time middle school arrives, many are ready to transition into a regular classroom setting or classes run by learning specialists with appropriate supports, rather than remaining in more intensive center programs.

But Dempsey says those students are losing a full year of support they would normally get at the elementary level.

“That’s where my fear is,” said Dempsey, whose son is a high-functioning autism student in Jeffco. “Some friends in our autism group, they too fear because some of them are going to be facing that year of loss next year going into middle school.”

Because all students on the autism spectrum are different, Dempsey said there are more challenges for some students with autism to join traditional classrooms.

“There is a broader population of kids that are high functioning that don’t need that one-on-on, but do need more guidance,” Dempsey said, adding that social awkwardness is one thing her son, and many high functioning autism students, struggle with.

In another concern voiced at election forums, some parents and community members also worried that middle schools would not be able to provide enough mental health support with the addition of sixth-graders.

But DeAndrea Austin, principal at Bell, said that middle school actually has more social and emotional supports than elementary schools.

Bell, and most middle schools in the district, have three full-time counselors in addition to a social and emotional learning (SEL) specialist.

“They have so much access to that piece,” DeAndrea Austin said. “Other than change is hard and we still see our 11-year-olds as children, the reality is if the concern is that they’re too young, they actually have more opportunity to access SEL support than they did at the elementary school.”

Jeffco parent Weiser expects the transition to encounter some challenges. But she also expects the end result to be worth it.

“There will be bumps and hiccups and there will be things that need to be tweaked down the road,” Weiser said. “While it’s nerve-wracking, I trust that our district has student best interests in mind. I don’t know when would be a better time to do it.”

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Jack Woehr

This is the kind of in-depth coverage of important local issues that justifies our print subscription to the Golden Transcript. Excellent article by Ms Fortier.

Monday, November 13