EDUCATION: Making the transition; Several Minnesota districts have switched to intermediate schools -- grades 4-5; a question Bemidji voters will decide in November
BEMIDJI -- Spring Lake Park (Minn.) Schools already has been through the transition Bemidji Area Schools hopes to experience as it seeks voter approval this fall to build an intermediate school.
"If you were to ask our fourth- and fifth-grade teachers -- which we have -- they would not want to go back to a K-5 school," said Jeff Ronneberg, superintendent of Spring Lake Park Schools. "They see a lot of benefit in the fourth/fifth grade scenario and being able to have teams to better balance student needs."
In a change that took effect for the 2007-08 school year, Spring Lake Park transitioned from traditional K-5 elementary schools to K-3 primary schools and a grade 4-5 intermediate school. That is the configuration Bemidji Area Schools hopes its voters will support as they ponder questions in this fall's election to fund the construction and operation of a new grade 4-5 intermediate school.
"In primary school our focus is on learning to read, and then from fourth grade on they're actually reading to learn," said Jim Hess, superintendent of Bemidji Area Schools, as he spoke with the Pioneer in mid-July. "It's a whole different focus for instruction."
In July, as the School Board inched closer toward its decision to seek a referendum this year, Hess touted the potential benefits of an intermediate school, emphasizing the possibility of further collaboration across all fourth- and fifth-grade staff and noting that programming at the school could be also structured to emphasize specific educational goals, perhaps focusing on STEM subjects, (science, technology, engineering and math) or the arts.
Meanwhile, he said, K-3 schools would be able to focus curriculum-wide on establishing and strengthening basic skills, calling such primary schools "every principal's delight."
But while district staff believes that such a configuration would prove beneficial for student learning, that is not the only driving factor. Bemidji Area Schools has in recent years been experiencing growing enrollments, particularly in the younger grades, which has increased pressure on the elementary buildings. The district, with 5,000 K-12 students, experienced an elementary enrollment increase of 358 students in the last six years, with an additional 326 projected by 2018.
By relocating the fourth-and fifth-grade classrooms from the elementaries into an intermediate school, that would free up classroom space within each of those buildings to accommodate more students.
Like the Bemidji district, Spring Lake Park was and is growing. Before it reconfigured its schools, it had four traditional elementaries: two that held about 500 students and two that were smaller and held a little more than 300 students.
"We were having struggles with equitably balancing class sizes with the smaller schools," said Ronneberg, who for more than 15 years has served Spring Lake Park Schools, the past five as superintendent and before that, as assistant superintendent. "It's really not economical or doesn't make a lot of educational sense when you're at that two-section-per-grade school. You have that challenge of having 50 students at first grade and above that, up to 54, when you don't want 27 first-graders in a first-grade class. But if you go smaller you're getting down below 20, which is difficult to sustain."
Instead seeking a referendum at that time, the Spring Lake Park district was able to reconfigure its existing schools to accommodate the new arrangement. After the new configuration was put in place, the district received voter approval to construct another K-3 school. The district now has two K-3 schools, one 4-5 intermediate school, a middle school and a high school. It also has a K-5 Spanish immersion school.
Ronneberg said that by then the district was "really happy" with its grade arrangement by the time it sought the referendum and did not seriously consider going back to K-5. Research showed the district was saving about $500,000 a year, putting it in a strong financial position for a new building. Also, he noted that if the district had opted then to go back to K-5 schools, the district would have had to add somewhere between seven and 10 more teachers and have less support for basic skills support.
"When you have more sections of first grade, you're able to better balance classes, better meet student needs," Ronneberg said. "We're able to bring more support to classrooms than when they were spread across multiple schools."
The only potential drawback from primary teachers' perspective, he said, would be the loss of interaction between the fifth-graders and younger students, through programs such as reading buddies. While third-graders can assist with that, he said it's not quite the same.
By having the configuration it does, though, the district was able to strengthen and add to its programming. For example, it now has fifth-grade band and a language program at the intermediate school, both of which would have been difficult to sustain throughout multiple elementary schools.
That said, Ronneberg acknowledged that the change was not easy.
"We had a ton of concerns," he said, when asked how parents initially felt about the proposal. "We did a lot of public meetings over the course of two years. There were a lot of concerns, a lot of (concerns about) giving up that neighborhood school."
A question of transition
Little research has been done in recent years that specifically examines elementary grade-level configurations. However, a 2011 review by the University of Minnesota's Center for Applied Research and Educational Improvement suggests that students do better with fewer transitions from one school to the next.
The CAREI review, done three years ago as Stillwater Public Schools mulled the possibility of transitioning from a junior high (grades 7-9) configuration to a middle school (grades 6-8) arrangement, found that learning was hindered as students moved on to another school setting.
"One clear finding across the studies ... was that school transitions, overall, had negative effects on academic, psychological and social-emotional and student behavior outcomes," the report states in its conclusions. "This suggests that the fewer transitions for students, the better."
While the issue in the Stillwater district was focused primiarly on the pre-teen and early-teenage years, Carissa Keister, manager of community engagement for the Stillwater district, said
the district was also cognizant of concerns regarding the number of student transitions.
"That's definitely something we've talked a lot about in our district," she said.
In fact, the district relocated its preschools into their respective elementary buildings to help children transition into kindergarten more smoothly.
"If kids are already there as preschoolers they feel more comfortable," Keister said. "When they come to kindergarten they can jump right in. They know the school, they know the staff."
The CAREI review jibes with a 2011 report from the Current Issues in Education at Arizona State University that examined fifth-grade performance, looking at the student performance by fifth-graders in elementary, intermediate, and middle-school schools. That report found that fifth-grade elementary students had better reading and mathematics scores, suggesting that the transition to another school can at least temporarily affect student performance.
Ronneberg, in Spring Lake Park, said easing the transitions from fifth-grade to sixth-grade was not a driving factor in that district's reconfiguration to a primary-school model, but the change did alleviate difficulties.
"We've definitely seen that the transition to middle school is easier," he said. "For kids, they've now had all of the fourth- and fifth-graders together; it's not all brand new. The apprehension was taken away."
Also helping in that, perhaps, is that the 4-5 intermediate school in Spring Lake Park is located on the same campus as the middle school. The two schools share the grounds, but are operated separate from one another, sharing only the cafeteria. But the students are familiar with their surroundings as they move on to middle school, attending class at the same site for five years.
That's an idea that Bemidji School District has floated as a possibility, suggesting in July a site near the existing Bemidji Middle School as a potential location -- along with others -- for the intermediate school. But no decisions have yet been made on where to place the school, whose design is being modeled after Lincoln Elementary. The Bemidji School Board next meets at 6:30 p.m. Thursday at district headquarters for a special meeting dedicated to referendum planning.
Hess told the Pioneer that while the idea of a dedicated school for fourth- and fifth-graders may sound like a novel idea locally, the proposal actually follows existing district practices, such as housing fourth- and fifth-graders in their own wings within existing elementary schools.
"I think obviously with any change there's apprehension with staff and the parents but after getting through the change and working through it, people really did find it to be a positive change," Ronneberg said.
Referendum meeting is Thursday
The Bemidji School Board will convene for a special meeting at 6:30 p.m. Thursday to discuss referendum planning. The meeting will be held in the board room at district offices, located at 502 Minnesota Ave. NW.
The referendum questions
On July 14, the Bemidji School Board approved the following questions for the Nov. 4 general election ballot:
1. Will you provide $1 million each year for ten (10) years (starting with taxes payable for FY2016-2017) for the operation of a grades 4-5 elementary school?
2. Will you provide $30 million in bonds to construct a new grades 4-5 elementary school (120,000 sq ft/900 students) and $4 million in bonds to replace the HVAC (Heating, Ventilation and Air Conditioning) system at Bemidji Middle School?