The idea of creating one middle school in the Silver Falls School District has some parents and teachers questioning the educational advantages and advocating to keep the current K-8 model.
Silver Crest Elementary School math and physical education specialist Shawn Pool encourages the district’s Long-Range Facilities Committee to “look at the research.”
“No one is suggesting moving to a middle school model,” Pool said. “Instead, all studies have shown the middle school model has failed. Districts across the nation are closing middle schools and opening K-8’s. Why would we ever consider going against all research and our own experience with successful K-8’s?”
On May 1, Our Town ran an article about the facilities of Mark Twain Middle School and the Long Range Facilities Committee’s discussions about creating one middle school – with sixth, seventh and eighth grade students – in Silverton, possibly at the old high school location. Students from outlying schools would be bussed into town.
Currently the district has Mark Twain as the only middle school in Silverton, seven K – 8 schools outside of Silverton and one K – 8 charter school.
The committee, made up of representatives from throughout the district, is expected to present its final recommendations on a plan for district facilities to the school board on June 25.
Michelle Kuenzi attended Silver Crest Elementary School and now her five children do, with the oldest child in eighth grade and the youngest child in kindergarten.
“I am a huge advocate for the K-8 model,” Kuenzi said. “These schools are able to offer a very unique and special learning environment that large schools, with only a few grade levels, just aren’t able to offer.
She appreciates that her children can attend school together and learn from one another.
“The older kids are able to mentor the younger kids,” she said. “Those younger kids really look up to them. I appreciate the teachers and staff are able to focus on a smaller number of students. I truly hope our school district will realize the benefits of the current structure of our district and the supporters of the K-8 models will fight for what we have. I know I would be greatly saddened to see our current structure change.”
Pool spoke with former school board member Jim Sinn, who has asked how having one middle school would save the district money.
“No one could ever show having a large middle school would save money. I would expect it to cost us,” Pool said. “Again the research shows more absences and tardies, more discipline issues, and a higher dropout rate when students transfer from a middle school into a high school.”
Pool said all teachers are required to be highly qualified to meet requirements, adding “I am unaware of any teacher in K-8s that (is) not already highly qualified. Many have masters degrees or are working on it, and I’m even aware of a doctoral candidate.”
Instead of creating one middle school, Pool said research indicates the only way to have a level playing field would be to close the town schools and create more K-8 schools.
“This is not just an idea or whim,” Pool said. “It is backed by decades of research. Across the nation the number of K-8s have doubled and a thousand or more middle schools have closed. If cities like Cleveland, Miami, New York, Philadelphia, etc. can transition from middle schools to K-8s surely all of Silver Falls could, because we are already familiar with the model.”
There are several questions parents and teachers interviewed would like answered about a one middle school plan. Would it save money? What problem is it solving? Do you dismantle excellent environments – schools that are achieving or exceeding state benchmarks – in order to level the playing field?
“At the end of the day, the age of the buildings will win out and we will likely all merge into one,” said a teacher who asked not to be identified. “Until then, I would proceed with caution, because there are so many unintended consequences. We need to be very clear about our reasons for change and that those reasons are accurate and necessary.”
Silver Crest teacher Abby Greene and retired teacher Mary Jane Grizzard would like to know if the committee has considered passing a bond to upgrade existing buildings rather than one to build or remodel a new middle school. They said they believe it will cost the same to house K-5 students at the outlying schools as it does now and believe there would be an increase in transportation costs.
Both women can give many examples of students who have thrived in the K-8 school after moving from a larger school elsewhere.
Grizzard suggested people make appointments to visit the district’s schools, talk to people who work there, and look at how and where students are being educated.
“I believe people who do this with an open mind will see there is room for improvement but Silver Falls is offering a good education for a variety of students in a variety of settings,” Grizzard said.
Jean Elliott has only worked at Pratum Elementary School this year and is impressed with what she sees.
“Having seen what school is like out there compared to at Eugene Field, Robert Frost, and Mark Twain, I would have considered sending our kids to a K-8 school,” she said, adding she has observed a more relaxed and family atmosphere.
Parents and guardians who live in town do have the option of sending their children to an outlying school if there is room. For example, a bus picks up students at three places in town to take them to Silver Crest Elementary School, said kindergarten teacher Christine Guenther.
Her children attend Evergreen Elementary School, although her family lives in town.
Several of the teachers and parents interviewed emphasized how they like how older students serve as role models for younger students at K-8 schools.
Elliott said at Pratum students are known by staff and families.
An advantage to a K-8 school, Elliott said, is students are well-known for nine years instead of starting over at a new school every three or four years.
Pool said he has found no pros to having one large middle school.
“In the mid 2000s there were a few researchers who weren’t sure moving back to K-8s would increase achievement,” Pool said. “But even they stated that K-8s were safer, had better attendance, more families involved, students were more involved in extra-curricular activities, had higher self-esteem and less anxiety moving to high school.”
Pool added his research indicates achievement is higher for students raised through a K-8 model.
Tammie Anderson, a parent and a media and educational assistant at Silver Crest, understands some students may thrive in a large school, but also knows many others ate more successful in a smaller school environment.
“I personally wanted my children to attend a smaller school,” she said. “Kids at our smaller school are able to learn with less of the social pressures that kids at larger schools seem to have to deal with. There is less emphasis on clothes and cliques and more practice getting along with everyone.”
“Choices are always a good thing,” Anderson said. “Silverton is a very diverse community. To offer many choices in schools is a positive.”