St. Paul schools’ new plan would move 6th-graders to middle school and limit citywide busing

Are sixth-graders ready for middle school?

The jury’s out among parents at St. Anthony Park Elementary School, according to Principal Ann Johnson. Families at the school have given a mixed response to the St. Paul Public Schools’ proposal to move sixth-graders out of elementary school and into middle school programs in the district.

“Some are happy about it,” Johnson said, and some are not.

Implementing middle-school programs across the district is one part of Superintendent Valeria Silva’s proposed plan to reorganize the district in an effort to cut costs, increase student achievement and create greater consistency among schools.

Called Strong Schools, Strong Communities, it would divide the city into six attendance areas and end citywide busing for many of the district schools in hopes that students will attend schools closer to home. The district claims that data show low-income and students of color do better at their neighborhood elementary schools than at magnet schools outside of their community.

Schools in the Como Park and St. Anthony Park neighborhoods would be part of Area E, which includes five elementary schools that would become “community” K–5 schools. Students at those schools (St. Anthony Park, Chelsea Heights, Como Park, Galtier and Hamline-Hancock) would move on to Murray Middle School in sixth grade and Como Park Senior High in ninth grade.

Jill Gebeke, principal at Chelsea Heights Elementary School in Como Park and a former middle-school teacher and administrator, said the change to a 6–8 model is a good idea.

Currently, students who attend the district’s K–6 schools head to junior high school for seventh and eighth grade. “Two years is not enough time to work with the students,” Gebeke said. “You just get to know the families and the students, and they are gone. Three years makes sense.”

Tim Williams, principal at Murray Junior High, agreed. “Overall, the three years of having students will be a benefit. Having them here for sixth grade will help staff get to know them and better prepare them for the transition to high school. That two-year time span doesn’t work as far as developing relationships with kids and families.”

Why a 6–8 model rather than 7–9?  Moving sixth-graders to middle school would be easier than taking ninth-graders out of a four-year high school program, said Superintendent Valeria Silva.

In the new program, sixth-graders would not have the same structure as their seventh- and eighth-grade middle schoolmates, Silva said. Sixth-graders would be with the same teacher or team of teachers for most of the day, rather than change classes every hour.

Sixth-graders who need after-school daycare could bus to a Discovery  Club program at a nearby elementary school or take advantage of after-school programs at the middle school, Silva said.

Area E

The move to middle school is one of many changes to school programs and locations that will affect nearly every student in the district if the school board approves the proposal at its March 15 meeting.

Sixteen of the district’s existing magnet elementary schools would lose their citywide buses. Some would become “community schools,” which would offer busing only within their areas. Current neighborhood schools would become community schools that could draw students from the entire attendance area.

“The idea of areas does make sense,” Gebeke said, “but it’s not going to be that different for us. Our area just gets larger to draw from.”

That larger attendance area could help Chelsea Heights increase enrollment. The school has 450 students—most of whom live in Como Park—but could enroll 600, Gebeke said.

That’s all part of the plan, said Silva. Moving the sixth-graders to middle school would free up space in the elementary buildings to accommodate children moving from other schools.

“We need to have less elementary schools and more students in each elementary school,” Silva said. “We can’t afford schools with less than 300 or 350 students anymore.”

But that choose-any-community-school-in-your-area plan has some parents concerned that if a popular community school is at capacity, students who live close to that school may not be able to enroll there.

That won’t happen, Silva said. Students who live near a community school will be able to attend that school, she said. “It would make no sense if you lived close to Chelsea you couldn’t attend Chelsea, and this plan is about making sense.”

Another worry that area parents have is that Murray Junior High School will lose its status as a math and science magnet. Murray’s math and science emphasis is not mentioned on the district’s information sheets that publicize the proposed plan.

Murray has not been a magnet school for years, Silva said, but it is a school with a math and science focus, and that will continue.

“We are not going to take away anything that is working,” she said, noting Murray Junior High School would retain its science and math emphasis as a middle school. In fact, “we are trying to replicate and expand programs that are successful,” Silva said.

In the long term, Silva’s goal is to provide the same quality across the board at all schools “so people don’t have to shop around for things that a public school should offer at its core,” she said. All elementary schools should have art instruction, music, science and librarians, she said. Her goal is to provide the same staffing opportunities at every school. She’s hoping that the savings that will come from limiting busing and having a smaller number of elementary schools will help pay for that.

“The changes are necessary because we have to live our new reality,” Silva said,  “and our new reality is we have to invest our resources differently.”

Choices

Students would still be able to enroll at any school in the district if there is room and if the family provides transportation. The district will continue to use the lottery system it uses now for students applying to high schools outside of their area, Silva said.

No decision has been made regarding sibling preference at schools outside a family’s attendance area. Any changes to sibling-preference rules will be announced this fall, according to the district website.

Eleven elementary magnet schools, including Capitol Hill’s gifted and talented, the language-immersion schools, Farnsworth aerospace and others, would retain the right to bus from the entire city.

High schools would begin to limit busing in the 2012–13 school year. Students who are currently attending a high school outside of their area would continue to receive busing through graduation, Silva said. “We are not disrupting the life of students who have already started their high school career.”

The proposed plan would make Como Park Senior High School a stronger school, according to principal Dan Mesick. “It’s going to strengthen our partnerships with these elementaries and junior highs in the area,” he said, “and kids will feel more a part of the community.”

A series of public meetings on the proposed plan is scheduled over the next month. The Area E meeting will be held at Como Park Senior High School, 740 W. Rose Ave., Monday, Feb. 7, from 7 to 8:30 p.m. Free childcare will be provided.

If approved in March, the plan will be implemented over three years. The majority of changes at the elementary and middle schools would happen in the 2013–14 school year.

Traditions and transitions

St. Anthony Park Elementary School’s current third-graders would be among the first sixth-graders at Murray Middle School.

Those students are looking forward to it, Johnson said. “Parents and I have talked about keeping it super positive for the kids’ great adventure,” she said. “They will be the first class to pave the way.”

There are many traditions associated with being a sixth-grader at that school that hang in limbo if the proposed plan is passed: serving as school crossing guards, being the targets of the sponge throw at the school’s spring carnival, and perhaps the most hallowed rite of passage, the annual sixth-grade trip to Wolf Ridge, an environmental learning center in northern Minnesota. The seeds for that trip were planted nearly 40 years ago.

Johnson said she’s not sure what will happen if the board approves the plan. “We’ve got a couple of years to plan,” Johnson said. “The parents and I will work closely together and work with Murray to figure out what to do to keep some of the traditions and to transition some to Murray.”

If the plan is approved, the district’s current attendance areas will remain for the 2011–12 school year.

Overall, Johnson said she is impressed with the proposal because ultimately it would build strong community schools. Johnson worked in district magnet schools before coming to St. Anthony Park Elementary three years ago. “I now see the power of the community caring for a school,” she said. “We are the heart of the community. We’re a wonderful place and I know it’s very special here. I wish this for all neighorhoods.”

District extends student-application deadline

St. Paul Public Schools has extended the application deadline for elementary and secondary students to March 22.

The date change allows families time to complete the application process following the March 15 school board meeting, where the board is expected to take action on the new district strategic plan.

For more information about the application process, visit the district’s website at www.spps.org.

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