Superintendent Barbara Malkas answers questions at last Thursday's presentation about moving grades.
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — The School Committee on Tuesday approved a grade reconfiguration that will move Grade 7 to Drury High School.
The changes will also allow the school district to move the pre-kindergarten program out of Johnson School and into the three elementary schools.
"I really like the idea that they said it would be a team environment and that staff and faculty will be involved in how this shapes up," Mayor Richard Alcombright said of bringing of Grades 7 and 8 together. "I think what I'm most pleased about ... I think this gives us the opportunity to eliminate a waiting list for preK and it will allow all the kids that really want to come into preK to do that. ...
"I think that's a really good thing because I hear from our teachers all the time just how important that is to get that basis before they enter kindergarten."
The reconfiguration will be implemented at the beginning of the next school year.
The proposal was dependent on the Massachusetts School Building Authority signing off because the state agency had approved the Colegrove Park Elementary School project based on a K-7 configuration. The $30 million school project is still under MSBA purview until the project audit is completed.
"They have accepted that proposal and will provide that in writing in the next few weeks," reported Superintendent Barbara Malkas. Verbal approval had been offered during a conference call late Tuesday afternoon, she said.
School officials last Thursday had run through the changes to a crowd of about 60-70 parents and community members in the Drury auditorium. Questions were submitted on index cards and most concerns centered around the promixity of seventh-graders to older students at Drury and on the bus, preK children interacting with older peers, programming and transportation.
School officials say moving preK and Grade 7 reduces transitions between schools over the course of a student's education; keeps the majority of students in their neighborhood schools; and creates developmentally appropriate grade spans for elementary, junior and senior high.
The preK program for 3- and 4-year-olds would move out of the 1898 Johnson School that is not compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act. There are 127 children in five classes and the program is considered special education with a limit on how many typically developing children can enroll.
"The whole purpose is to provide a social, emotional and learning environment for children who are having learning challenges," Thomas Simon, director of student support, said at last week's presentation.
Two classes each would move to Greylock and Colegrove; one would move to Brayton with the potential for adding a sixth class. Each school would be able to contain the preK and kindergarten classes in a way to separate them from older grades to some extent.
"It requires a lot of capital improvement," Malkas had said of Johnson. Teachers have "done a very admirable job in a building that was not built to have the kind of infrastructure needed for 21st-century learning."
The number of children in each class is limited by the state based on a ratio of children on individualized education plans to typically developing children. Johnson is maxed out on the number it can accept but about 30 children are on a waiting list to get in. The program now could accommodate up to 180 children.
The school district shares Johnson with Head Start, which has a lease and will continue there for the time being.
Grades 7 and 8 would create a "school within a school" for core classes using the classrooms in the back hallway on the upper level at Drury. The consolidation would allow a team-teaching environment and better focus on curriculum to reduce what school officials say is a "learning gap" at the middle school level.
"Looking at the districtwide data, we really see there's an opportunity to accelerate the gap closing," said interim Principal Timothy Callahan at Tuesday's meeting.
Students would still share certain areas with high school students — such as the cafeteria, gym and electives — but not at the same time.
Regarding busing, Malkas said there is a "steep decline" among older students using school buses — they drive or ride with others although the district would be aware of behavioral problems.
"It's no different than what is happening in our neighboring districts," she said, referring to both Mount Greylock Regional and Hoosac Valley High School that have a middle school program in their high school buildings. Hoosac is considering moving to a Grade 5-12 configuration.
Seventh-grade is currently across the three elementary schools with different teachers; with the new model, both grades will be together making it easier to coordinate curriculum and interventions.
"With the smaller group, we would be able to focus on the student needs," Callahan said. "We can set them up in an area that keeps them focused on a single mindset."
The hope is that the transition will make it easier for both grades because the eighth grade has more discipline problems than the rest of the high school. It will also open up opportunities for seventh-graders in sports, music and drama.
School Committee member Mark Moulton said the proposal had brought up a lot of questions and concerns that he felt had been answered satisfactorily at last week's presentation.
"I think it's the best thing for our district," he said.
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