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Group of teachers opposes 8th-graders moving to high school

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Moving eighth-graders from the middle school to the high school could be the most expensive option for the Bemidji School District, according to Gina Bernard.

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Bernard, a teacher at Bemidji High School, handed each Board of Education member Monday a petition signed by 75 staff members from the high school opposed to reconfiguring grade levels as a solution to the overcrowded elementary schools.

"We believe the option of moving the eighth-grade students to the high school is both myopic and over-simplified," Bernard said during the public input portion of the school board meeting.

Speaking on behalf of teachers who signed the petition, Bernard asked the board to instead expand its elementary schools.

"Consider the physical and emotional maturity levels of 13-year-olds compared to 18-year-olds," Bernard said. "Do these two age groups belong in the same building?"

The school board has come up with a list of nine options to overcome space shortages at the elementary schools. The board also has hosted three public forums asking for public input on the matter. The final public forum is scheduled for 7-8:30 p.m. Thursday, March 3, at BHS, 2900 Division St. W. The board is compiling all of the public comments from each public session and will not decide which options to pursue until its March 21 meeting.

One of the proposed options is to move fifth-graders to the Bemidji Middle School and move the eighth-graders to the high school, which currently has the most available space of all the district facilities.

In previous public meetings, Superintendent James Hess stated there are pros and cons to reconfiguring grade levels.

More than 350 elementary students would move to the middle school. According to Hess, this option would give eighth-graders more options for electives and activities. Hess also stated reconfiguring grade levels is one of the lower-cost solutions to overcoming classroom space shortages.

But the school district has never been set up this way before. Eighth-graders would attend the same school as 12th-graders. Hess said some fifth-grade parents may resist sending their child to an intermediate or secondary school. There would also be increased traffic at the high school, not just in the parking lot, but in the lunch room, media center and gymnasium.

"Where will the additional students congregate before school? What are the ramifications of adding a fourth lunch period?" Bernard asked school board members.

Bernard said if eighth-graders moved to the high school, more food service staff, parking supervisors and hall monitors may need to be hired. An assistant principal for eighth-graders and an American Indian education liaison may also be needed.

"We are currently working with one health office nurse and she is overrun," Bernard said. "Will the eighth-graders be included in dances, pep fests and home room? How will we maintain a three-tiered practice schedule for extra-curricular activities?"

The other options the school board is considering are to purchase or lease modular classrooms for use at Northern and Solway elementary schools; build permanent classroom additions onto Northern, Solway or Lincoln elementary schools; reopen Deer Lake Elementary School; eliminate all-day, every-day kindergarten; transition to a four-day school week; move to an extended school year; build another elementary school (which would require voter approval); or repurpose the Paul Bunyan Center and build a new early learning center.

Chris Leinen, the district's director of business services, said the district will likely see about 66 more students per year for each of the next five years than it did for each of the last five years. These numbers, he said, come from the number of births reported at the local hospital from the last five years.

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