Are K through 8 schools things of the past, memories of yesteryear? Are middle schools the wave of the future? Many educators think so, but some still believe K through 8 is the best way to go!
The educational pendulum couldn't swing much farther in the direction of middle schools than it already has. Now and then, however, even though middle schools rule the educational landscape, we hear cries -- thin but growing stronger -- of "Take another look at K through 8."
What's the best configuration for K through 12 schooling? That's a question educators strive to answer. In the 1960s, the nation found its answer, accepting the idea that middle schools were necessary. People thought 12- and 13-year-old students had particular needs that could be met best when students were housed in a separate building. Now some educators are rethinking that assumption.
WHAT DOES THE RESEARCH SAY?
"First, it's probably safe to say that there is not much, if any, hard and fast research on grade configuration," said Jennifer Fager of Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory Information Services. Fager worked with Catherine Paglin on a booklet titled Grade Configuration: Who Goes Where?, which was published in July 1997.
"That was one of our obstacles in preparing the booklet," Fager continued. "Some information exists with respect to middle schoolers, but beyond that, it's mostly anecdotal stuff. That said, I can tell you that many people feel positive about the K through 8 concept.
"They feel that it is good for the younger kids to have older role models in the building every day, that it gives them an understanding of the purpose and progression of education," she went on. "It is also said that it is good for the older kids to be role models and mentors and that this arrangement gives them more of a sense of accountability to their younger admirers. Some feel that this configuration lends itself to a more community type atmosphere. That can also be attributed to the fact that K through 8 schools are often found in small communities, which tend to support their schools more than larger ones."
"On the other hand," Fager continued, "a K through 8 arrangement might not be able to tend as specifically to the developmental needs of a particular age group as schools with narrower configurations can. For example, proponents of the middle school philosophy feel it is very important to offer students in this age range services tailored to their unique phase of life.... There are those who feel strongly about primary schools that service grades K through 2 or 3. Again, specific developmental needs of early childhood come into play in these instances."
HOW ONE K-8 SCHOOL WORKS
Jim Cox is the principal of Girdwood Elementary School in Girdwood, Alaska, one of the K through 8 schools featured in the NWREL booklet that Fager worked on. He is understandably enthused about the K through 8 configuration but said it might not work well in every situation.
He talked about how he, his staff, the students, and the community make the 142-student school work. "We have very high expectations academically, and student responsibility is stressed."
Although all grades are housed in one building, seventh and eighth grades operate much as a junior high school does. "At any given time, we have about 25 to 45 students in seventh and eighth grades," Cox said. "We offer a variety of subjects, even though we may have, for instance, five students in geometry. But we still offer it. And when we can't offer an elective, teachers try to offer students independent study."
Another unique feature of the school, Cox says, is the degree of student involvement. "I do think [students] miss out on certain advantages of a larger school," Cox says, "but they are involved in the school to a great extent. They plan activities around math and science, for example, that they would like to do. They planned a kayaking experience to study water, for instance. There is also a student-driven field trip each year."
High-school teachers report that Girdwood students, as a whole, perform well. "I think it's because of the degree of responsibility students take for their work," Cox says. "Our parents at all grade levels are also very involved."
As he explains the advantages of this K through 8 school, Cox acknowledges that some of them derive from conditions other than the school configuration. "The involvement of parents and the relative smallness of our school give it some of the character it has," Cox says.
OVERALL TREND TOWARD K-8?
Although it's too early to point to a nationwide trend toward reinstating or creating new K through 8 schools, areas exist in which movement to the K through 8 configuration can be found.
Colorado Education Commissioner William Moloney has suggested revisiting the concept of elementary schools that teach kindergarten through eighth grade. Most school districts in Colorado have middle schools or junior highs sandwiched between elementary and senior high schools.
"Don't misconstrue this," Moloney told the Rocky Mountain News (see Quit Building Middle Schools?: Top Education Official Floats Idea to Legislators). "It's not an issue of abolishing existing middle schools. That would be wasteful. But when we have an enormous financial burden ahead of us in new construction, you just have to look at other options."
Adding two grades, seventh and eighth, to existing K through 6 schools would be less expensive than building new middle schools.
Moloney went on to say, "Historically [the K through 8 school] is what America was. It really comes down to the things that parents value most -- intimacy, the basics, control.
"If your child is known by every single teacher in the building, if you have a relationship of nine years' duration, if you have that kind of focus and intensity," Moloney asked, "is that not better than when your children are sent to a more distant school with larger numbers?"
In Higley, a rapidly growing hamlet in the East Valley near Phoenix, Arizona, the school board in December 1998 decided the five new schools it envisions will be K through 8 schools, just as its single school is now. Barry Burke, a Higley school board member, told the Arizona Republic ("Higley Signs Off on K-8 Schools," 12/16/98) that it makes sense to keep preteens and early teens in the regimented elementary school setting.
Higley school officials say that, generally, older children in K through 8 schools are less likely to succumb to negative peer pressure than they are in middle schools and junior highs, which are basically mini high schools.
Advocates of middle schools see the issue quite differently, however. They say kids aged 12 and 13 have their own needs -- including discipline problems and special electives -- that can be best met in a separate building with a larger population.
So many educational districts have built middle schools and junior highs that we probably can't expect any major swing in the pendulum soon. Still, the trend in some areas to retain or build K through 8 schools bears watching.
Article by Sharon Cromwell
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