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One middle school?: Long range facilities committee considers option

By Kristine ThomasA series about our schools.

Mark Twain Middle School Principal Dandy Stevens said when the school was built in the 1950s, students sat in rows and listened to a lecture from their teacher while taking notes.

“There wasn’t the interaction in the classroom that there is today,” Stevens said. “There weren’t students working in small groups on projects. The way students learn today is vastly different from when the school was built.”

While Stevens doesn’t think having a state-of-the-art facility is the key to high-performing students, she does believe a building should support the work of teachers and students.

“At times, this building doesn’t support our staff or students,” she said. “This building is a barrier to providing an education to meet the federal and state requirements.”

One of the ideas being discussed by the Silver Falls School District’s Long Range Facilities Committee is 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 and 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.

Technology challenges

Mark Twain Middle School students are required to take state tests in three areas. With 30 eight- to 12-year old computers in the computer lab and a mobile lab with 15 computers, both Stevens and teacher Darby Hector said there aren’t enough to support 300 students.

“Whenever there is state testing, I have to move my students out of the computer lab in the library,” Hector said.

Even if the district could afford additional computers, Stevens and Hector said the building doesn’t have the infrastructure – enough electrical outlets or Internet capacity – to support them.

“Our technology in the building is outdated,” Stevens said.

Maintenance challenges

From a boiler that has glitches – one half of the school could be 40 degrees while the other half is 80 degrees – to leaks in the roof, Stevens said Mark Twain’s maintenance issues can interfere with learning.

“Students and teachers aren’t supposed to be aware of the building and it isn’t supposed to get in the way of learning or teaching but it does,” Stevens said.

Mike Craig, a custodian, said he keeps the building up and running.

“It’s little things like water leaks, the boiler not running right and keeping it clean,” he said. “The carpet in the library and classrooms needs to be replaced.”

From a technology standpoint, Hector said the building needs more electrical outlets.

“We can plug something in and blow a fuse,” she said.

The science classroom has the minimal requirements for equipment, Stevens said, adding even if she wanted to add another science teacher there wouldn’t be the room.

Stevens said she is impressed with how teachers have creatively used the space available to provide for students. For example, a closet in the library is where the behavioral specialist or psychologist meets with students.

The gym serves as a cafeteria, meaning when it’s time to feed 150 teenagers, the gym is where they go. It’s also the destination for recess, on rainy days.

Stevens appreciates the many qualities of the building including the natural lighting, the large field and the fact that it has one main hallway that supports a sense community.

She knows she can stand in one place and see most of her students coming or going.

“I think Mark Twain has a great sense of tradition and history and people make the school work,” she said.

However, the building does not meet the changing needs of educating middle school students especially with the mandatory state and federal requirements students must meet to graduate from high school, she said.

“I think if we gave people the proper equipment to do their jobs, that they would perform better,” she said. “We can’t teach kids to drive by having them learn with a horse and buggy. In order for our students to be able to compete, they need the right tools and this building is not necessarily able to provide the right tools.”

Curriculum challenges

Stevens said having one middle school would allow the district to provide more specialized programs.

“We would be able to offer more science, have a music class and a dedicated PE class,” she said.

“I think in order for students to meet the Common Core Standards, having the students in one central place would be beneficial to them.”

Hector is proud of the work and the services offered by her fellow staff members and how they provide students with educational opportunities.

However, she thinks it would be a good idea to have one middle school.

“I think it would be a good thing to offer all students the same opportunities to learn. By having one middle school, we could offer the level of learning that applies to each student. In our district, there are the haves and have nots. One middle school would level the playing field.”

Eugene Field Principal Jennifer Hannan said federal requirements will soon mandate teachers are highly qualified in the subject they teach starting at sixth grade.

She said it makes sense for middle school students to be “housed together and near the high school both for resources sharing and so that the transition is more fluid as kids become ready to move up.”

Hannan said she understands it would a challenge for some parents and community members to “let go of the K-8 model which has worked very well in this district for a long time.  Sending a sixth-grader to town feels different than sending a ninth grader.”

Information challenges

Whatever decisions are made in June, will take a couple years to happen, Hector predicted.

She encourages parents and community members to visit buildings and to talk with long range facilities committee members about their concerns.

“I think the committee members need to visit all the buildings and present a clear picture to the public where we are spending money on the upkeep of each building,” she said.

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