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Editorial: Is merging ACSD sixth-graders into MUMS the right move, now?

Whether you think sixth grade students within the Addison Central School District (ACSD) should be merged into MUMS (Middlebury Union Middle School) or stay with their respective elementary schools within the seven towns, what’s important about the question is that it’s focused on academics and improving them for area students. It’s not a question about whether taxpayers can afford the budget, or teacher salaries and benefits, but rather how students can best be served.
That’s refreshing. 
The past four months of discussion has been refreshing as well. Over the past several months, several community forums have been held; more than 350 respondents have filled out two different surveys; two school-based teams have studied the issue for the past four months and contributed their analysis and preferences; and Superintendent Peter Barrows has offered his own analysis and preference to the board. The ACSD board is slated to take that collective information and make its decision — yay or nay — next Monday at its June 19 board meeting.
On the negative side of the argument, the concerns (as summarized by the Primary Years Design Team and the Middle Years Design team) include:
• Too much change: ACSD is already undergoing considerable change with Act 46 governance consolidation, plus its move toward authorization as a district of IB (International Baccalaureate) World Schools. Shifting the sixth grades from every elementary school district to MUMS is just too much to absorb all at once. 
• 6th-graders are better off where they are: Keeping sixth grade students where they are allows them to take more of a leadership role in the schools, and avoids exposure of potential behavior issues of middle school-age students. 
• Could weaken community schools: Because several district elementary schools are small, taking the sixth grade away could hasten the closure or smaller schools and put more of a burden on remaining teachers and staff (lunch, recess, busy duties, etc.). It would change the culture and community of the elementary schools, and some parents don’t want to lose the elementary school connection a year earlier than they currently do.
• The current system is working well enough, so why change it?
On the positive side, the benefits cited include: 
• Equity: Teachers and community members largely agree that moving sixth graders into MUMS would provide the majority of students with greater academic equity to help better prepare them for high school.
• MUMS also provides a larger and more diverse cohort of peers at a more appropriate age level. Many behavior expectations at the elementary schools, frankly, are not developmentally appropriate for sixth-graders.
• Existing curricular models (Common Core and Next Generation Science Standards and IB Standards and Practices) are set up as K-5, meaning that it makes sense to move sixth graders into the middle school so the tougher curriculum pushes their skills and development; plus the MUMS academic model is viewed by both teacher groups as a better fit for sixth graders that will provide better academic outcomes.
• The sixth grade consolidation provides a longer time for MUMS teachers and administration to get to know the students, rather than for the current two years of 7th and 8th grades. MUMS teachers and administration are also eager to embrace the change, and MUMS currently has the space to accommodate the students. The move would actually save taxpayers about $170,000 annually. 
In sum, both teacher groups identified the reasons against moving sixth graders into MUMS as systems-based concerns or adult-centered (community) concerns, while the reasons for moving sixth graders into MUMS were student-centered. Both teacher groups supported consolidating sixth graders into MUMS.
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A little statewide perspective is helpful. For starters, having a two-year, 7th and 8th grade middle school is not the norm. Statewide there are 174 Vermont elementary schools. Of those, 71 schools (41 percent) offer grades K-6; 52 schools (30 percent) offer grades K-8; 26 (15 percent) offer grades K-5, and the percentages of the remaining options decline from there. 
Of the 107 schools that say they have middle schools, only 7 schools (7 percent) offer grades 7-8, while 12 schools (11 percent) offer grades 6-8; 6 schools offer grades 5-8. The most common scenario is K-8, which 51 schools have (48 percent), while 17 schools (16 percent) offer grades 7-12, and 9 schools (8 percent) offer K-12.
In short, what we have at MUMS is not the norm, and it would not be out-of-line to change to a 6-8 configuration.
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But in reading the 14-page ACSU Grade Configuration Report (see it at addisonindependent.com), other broader considerations should not be dismissed lightly. 
Of particular concern is the large number of survey respondents who are opposed. The first survey was conducted in April with 393 online responses. Of those, 38 percent supported the change, 26 percent said no, and 34 percent said they were unsure at that time. A second survey was done in June that asked residents to rate their position on sixth grade consolidation on a scale of 1 to 4. Of the 348 who responded, 55 percent favored or strongly favored, while 45 percent opposed or were strongly opposed.
What’s important to question is whether this should be a decision based on majority rule. This is not, after all, a public vote. It is a board decision made with a volume of input. If 45 percent of respondents object to such a substantial change in our school system, might not it be better to build stronger support before making the change.
Superintendent Peter Burrows argues that point in his recommendation not to make the change at this time. Burrows seems to side with the two teams of teachers in their reasoning for advocating for consolidation and suggests their recommendations be incorporated into the ACSD’s long-range plans.
But he also emphasizes the need to settle into the changes already underway, to build trust among the new consolidated district community and the IB process before adopting more change. 
“We are moving from many boards and many communities to one community… and we need time and practice to build trust,” Burrows wrote in his memo to the board. “In analyzing the capacity of our staff and community to change, I believe that a grade configuration change at this point would not be optimal.”
That’s a wise approach for the short-term, though in the not-too-distant future a move to a 6-8 middle school seems to be in the best academic interests of the students. And improving student outcomes, not making change comfortable for adults, is where the community focus should be.
 
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Angelo Lynn

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