Lawrence school district administrators are recommending that school board members on Monday approve plans to change the makeup of the district’s schools for the 2011-2012 school year.
The change would move ninth-graders from the four junior high schools to the two high schools — and move sixth-graders from the 15 elementary schools to four middle schools, joining seventh- and eighth-graders.
If board members approve, the district would take one year to plan the change to address concerns brought up at recent community forums and site council meetings and to help students with a smooth transition, said Kim Bodensteiner, the district’s chief academic officer.
“We believe the time is right for us to move forward for us in Lawrence to have middle schools and four-year high schools,” Bodensteiner said.
Board members at their Monday meeting will hear feedback about two recent forums on the sixth-grade move, during which some parents questioned whether sixth-graders were mature enough to be in school with seventh- and eighth-graders.
Scott Morgan, the school board president who favors both changes, believes there was enough support among board members to move ninth-graders to the high schools — but he’s not sure about the sixth-grade.
On Friday, Bodensteiner discussed why administrators are recommending the changes.
The state’s high school curriculum is four grades, instead of three. Next fall, when Olathe changes to four-grade high schools, Lawrence will have the only three-grade high schools in the state.
“For a lot of our students it’s even hard to envision when they’re in ninth-grade that’s in a junior high, that that really is high school,” Bodensteiner said. “Many of them don’t see the connection of, these grades really are going to count on my transcript.”
Ninth-grade students don’t have access to as many extracurricular activities and clubs in junior high as they would at high schools. Also, it will be easier for students interested in career and technical courses to get involved in them sooner if they are high schools, she said.
The move would allow ninth-graders access to more elective courses, especially during tight economic times. The district cut ninth-grade German for next year, but administrators say they would bring it back for ninth-graders at the high schools because it would be cheaper to offer the course at two schools, rather than four.
Ninth-graders would also get more access to participate in varsity and junior varsity athletics, like other students across the state, Bodensteiner said. If board members approve four-grade high schools for 2011, administrators recommend moving ninth-grade athletics to high schools from junior high in the fall — one year earlier.
A majority of the 40 parents at forums earlier this month supported the ninth-grade change, but some worried about Lawrence High School having enough space in hallways to handle more students. Morgan said that LHS would still be smaller than it was before Free State High School opened in 1997 but that the board could talk about including something for space in a future bond issue that would likely be aimed at upgrading the elementary schools.
A district survey of 50 parents at two sixth-grade forums was split — with 22 parents against the change, 20 parents supporting the move to middle schools, and eight who were unsure.
The parents were concerned sixth-graders were not mature enough to handle being in a school with older students. Some also had concerns that it would reduce the number of students attending the district’s smaller elementary schools, putting some in danger of closing.
Morgan said a district task force would still be studying the district’s smaller neighborhood elementary buildings in the next year.
“I don’t think it would put a great deal of pressure to close any schools that didn’t already have that pressure. It’s not like this will tip it over one way or the other,” he said.
The task force will also look at some smaller elementaries like New York School possibly changing to a magnet school instead of closing.
Other than the parent concerns, Bodensteiner said a survey of school staff members who work with sixth-graders was more much more supportive of having four three-grade middle schools.
Of the 75 staff members who responded, 69 percent supported the change and 21 percent said they could support it if certain concerns were addressed.
Chris Bay, Sunset Hill School’s principal, said Lawrence’s current setup has been successful, but the middle school model was designed specifically to handle the developmental needs of sixth-graders. It would also allow the district to be more efficient in how it offers programs, like band and orchestra at four schools instead of 15.
“I would see sixth-graders thriving in an environment where they have more course offerings, more flexibility in a day,” Bay said.
Bodensteiner said the district’s curriculum is divided by kindergarten through fifth-grade and sixth- to eighth-grade. In a middle school, it’s also easier to place students in both more advanced and remedial classes as they need them, she said.
In some of the district’s larger elementary schools, now sixth-graders can prepare to go to junior high schools by moving around to different classes, but that’s not the case in smaller schools. Bodensteiner said middle schools also can be set up to help sixth-graders adjust by giving them a home room but at the same time get more interaction with older students.
“It’s not that we want kids to be older,” she said. “We want them to be able to do what they’re ready to do.”
Monday’s meeting starts at 7 p.m. at district headquarters, 110 McDonald Drive.