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Editorial: ACSD’s 6th-grade query poses challenges, potential rewards

The Addison Central School District recently posed an interesting question and challenge to its seven district towns: What did those schools and communities think about moving sixth grade students out of their respective elementary schools and into the Middlebury Union Middle School? The proposal would create a larger middle school of three grades — sixth, seventh and eighth — but would diminish the number of students attending each elementary school.
Justification for the idea is based on the district’s decision last October to pursue a three-year process to adopt the International Baccalaureate World School status for its schools, and whether merging the sixth grade with the middle school might advance the students’ and the program’s outcomes. As part of the IB instruction, the Middle Years Program includes students in grades 6 though 10, while the Diploma Program is geared to students 16-19, and the Primary Years Program includes students from ages 3 to 12. (See the story here.)
District officials are aware the idea will be controversial among ACSD teachers, parents and students, as well as community residents.
“I think any time you’re looking at grade configuration, there’s a lot you need to consider,” ACSD Supt. Peter Burrows told the Addison Independent. “One is adolescent development — what kind of environment it is for the student. And that’s what initially started this process, a feeling that people wanted to look at research (and address the question) ‘Are 6th-graders more suited to a middle school environment?’”
Initial community resistance is inevitable. With school populations declining, few community schools want to see student numbers shrink even more. The number of sixth-graders in each elementary school illustrates the concern: Bridport Central School: 8 out of 72 students are in the sixth grade; Cornwall’s Bingham Memorial has 7 out of 81; Middlebury’s Mary Hogan Elementary, 72 out of 446; Ripton Elementary, 3 out of 47; Salisbury Community, 13 out of 101; Shoreham Elementary, 12 out of 80; and Weybridge Elementary, 8 out of 50.
Had this transition occurred this year, 123 sixth-graders would have joined the 253 seventh- and eighth-graders at MUMS for a total student body of 376 in a building that hosted 450 students when it was built 20 years ago.
A host of questions leap to the fore, which is why district leaders have established a three-month effort to get community reaction. The superintendent will first go on a “listening tour” to all seven elementary schools with meetings held between 3 and 4:30 p.m.; a community survey will be distributed starting April 7 to get the maximum response; and three community forums will be held in May at as yet undetermined locations. (Go to www.acsu.orgfor updates.)
At the upcoming forums, ideally the conversations would first focus on what’s best for the students’ educational outcome; and secondarily, how it might affect the towns’ elementary schools and the various ways those concerns can be addressed.
What’s most encouraging is that the school district is actually talking about how to improve educational outcomes and academic excellence and bringing that conversation to the community, rather than have the community only focus on the budget and its impact on property taxes once a year at Town Meeting. That’s a welcome development in itself.
We encourage district residents to not only think about this particular issue (moving the sixth grade to the middle school), but also about ways to improve student outcomes. Then talk with neighbors and your child’s teachers; and, finally, be at one of the three forums to share your thoughts and concerns. A recommendation to the district board will be made in June, and a board vote will decide the outcome at that time.
If you want to have a say, you’ll have to get involved.
Angelo Lynn

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