ACSD board balks at moving sixth grade to middle school

MIDDLEBURY — The Addison Central School District board on Monday decided it will not move 6th grade instruction into Middlebury Union Middle School beginning next fall.
A majority of the panel agreed with Superintendent Peter Burrows’ opinion that such a move would be imprudent at a time when the ACSD is still adjusting to the major changes of consolidated governance and the transition to an International Baccalaureate Program.
“I think as a new district, with a new board that’s stepping forward on July 1 as a single community for the first time, that making this move at this time has the potential of creating a pretty significant rift in our new district that would make it very challenging for us to continue to do the other challenging work we have ahead,” Burrows said. He was referring to the proposed transition of the district’s 6th-graders from their seven respective elementary schools to MUMS, which would then become a grades 6-8 middle school.
Burrows’ acknowledged his recommendation ran counter to those issued by two committees that evaluated the new middle school grades configuration based on its potential compatibility with the International Baccalaureate Program, known as IB. The ACSD board last year decided to pursue IB World School status for its schools. If successful, the ACSD would become the first public school system in Vermont to achieve IB status.
A “Primary Years Program” committee and a “Middle Years Program” committee both studied the pros and cons of how a grades 6-8 middle school might benefit IB instruction. A majority of members on both panels said they believed moving 6th grade to MUMS would be a good idea.
According to the recently released ACSD Grade Configuration report, the committee members said the shift of 6th grades to MUMS would produce such benefits as:
•  Promoting equal educational opportunities for all the district’s sixth-graders. Elementary schools in the ACSD-member communities of Bridport, Cornwall, Middlebury, Ripton, Salisbury, Shoreham and Weybridge currently have uneven offerings in world languages, pre-K and other programs, as a result of limited space or resources.
•  Freeing up space in some ACSD elementary schools, such as Mary Hogan, which has been seeing an enrollment surge.
•  Offering all 6th-graders a larger “cohort of peers compared to rural schools.”
•  Allowing a smoother transition from primary years to middle years IB instruction.
•  Creating a more efficient use of resources.
•  Allowing for more equitable class sizes in the 6th grade.
But both committees also acknowledged some potential drawbacks if 6th-graders were to be served at MUMS. Potential negatives, officials said, include a strain on resources and physical space at MUMS; a reduction in enrollment at the seven elementary schools, some of which are already struggling with low student numbers; and possible negative influence of older adolescents on 6th-graders.
Ultimately, eight of the 10 Primary Years Program Committee members endorsed the 6th grade to MUMS, saying “it would increase academic and extracurricular opportunities for sixth-graders, it facilitates the programmatic change we are trying to make, and it would be an important step in increasing equity of experience and access for ACSD students.”
The Middle Years Program panel gave its “strong” recommendation for the 6th-grade transition, saying the advantages of doing so are “student-centered” and the reasons for not pursuing it are “adult-centered.”
But two district-sponsored surveys on the proposal indicated district residents were quite evenly divided.
The first survey, conducted last April, drew 393 responses. Thirty-eight percent of respondents said they favored the 6th-grade shift, 26 percent said they opposed it, and 34 percent weren’t sure.
The district administered a second survey earlier this month that drew 348 responses. Among those, 55 percent said they “strongly favored” establishing a grades 6-8 middle school, while 45 percent opposed such a move.
School board members said they received letters and phone calls from constituents on the issue, with some advocating for the change and others calling for maintaining the status quo. Among the correspondence: A letter, signed by 49 people who identified themselves as “concerned residents of ACSU/ACSD,” questioning the wisdom of making a major change in grade configuration in wake of the district’s other recent, major transitions.
The board on Monday also heard from a handful of people expressing pro and con viewpoints.
Burrows ultimately agreed with the dissenters’ point of view, but stressed that the potential shift in grades structure should not be abandoned, but rather made part of a long- range master planning process for the ACSD.
“A long-range master plan, I think, is more prudent than moving forward with this initial step, because I think there is other work we need to do to look at all aspects of this — not just the educational opportunities,” Burrows said.
He also warned board members on Monday that the district’s current K-12 enrollment of 1,748 students is projected to decline by around 140 children, or about 8 percent, during the next five years. That drop, he warned, will likely force some painful financial decisions. Changing the system’s grade structure could further complicate those decisions, he said.
“We also need to think about where we’re headed and what we can sustain,” Burrows said. “We may be really challenged fiscally.”
ACSD board members, after around an hour of debate, voted 11-1 (with member Ruth Hardy opposed) to accept Burrows’ suggestion that the district’s grade configuration remain as it is — for now.
“I believe the superintendent’s grade configuration report spells out in a clear and cogent review and argument for not moving the 6th grade to MUMS at this time,” board member Perry Hansen said, adding he hopes district educators will nonetheless be able to successfully implement the IB program.
Board member Nick Causton also strongly supported Burrows’ recommendation.
“I have not been convinced that MUMS could do a better job with grade 6 than the existing elementary schools, and geographic centralization will lead to additional challenges,” Causton said.
Causton voiced concern that the district’s 6th-graders aren’t getting equal educational opportunities within their respective elementary schools, but added he does not believe a move to MUMS would necessarily solve that issue.
“We need to optimize equity across all elementary schools, and IB should help bring the solution,” he said.
Board member Suzanne Buck said she initially supported the concept of 6th-graders to MUMS, but switched her position after a lot of testimony on the issue during the past four months. She became concerned about additional training hurdles for teachers, some of whom argued the district should improve its existing schools rather than change its grade configuration.
“The biggest issues for me are equity across all grade levels and making sure we do it right,” Buck said. “We’ve got so much change going on right now that — being an educator myself — I understand that when you have too much change going on on someone’s plate, things don’t always get done the way we want them to get done.”
Member Jason Duquette-Hoffman said he was surprised by what he believed was an ambitious timeline for considering the new grade configuration. While a potential 6th-grade shift to MUMS has been informally discussed by the district for the past two years, the move only gained momentum four months ago.
“To really put together all of the pieces of the plan, to consider all of the angles and see how they best fit, that’s a big lift in a matter of a few months,” Duquette-Hoffman said.
“I share the perspective of the superintendent, in that we’re not ready to make this move as a district, yet.”
Consideration of a new grade configuration has, according to Duquette-Hoffman, raised a lot of questions about the “6th-grade experience” in the ASCD. He said the school board should commit itself to improving that experience for students, even if it doesn’t move quickly to shift sixth grade to MUMS.
“Why are we trying to solve educational questions with a locational answer without knowing more about what those issues are?” Duquette-Hoffman said.
But he argued the district shouldn’t abandon the research it has done on grade configuration.
“I absolutely agree with (Burrows) that if we bracket this conversation and set it aside from this point on, we are making a terrible error,” he said.
Member Chip Malcolm agreed, saying that while he did not believe a grade shake-up was appropriate in the short-term, he did not want to see the board “put (the idea) under the rug and forget it.”
Board member Victoria Jette quipped that the largely supportive grade configuration study, capped by Burrows’ negative recommendation, “was like reading a novel with a surprise ending.”
“It feels like the process led us to where we didn’t want to be,” she added of the upcoming task of implementing IB without the requisite grade configuration.
Hardy was candid in voicing her disappointment with Burrows’ recommendation. She said she believed the time was right to move grade 6 to MUMS, and reiterated many of the stated advantages — such as greater educational equity and more flexible space in school buildings — that were laid out in the grade configuration report.
“The timeline was set by the superintendent and he got an answer,” Hardy said to Burrows. “And in my reading of that (grade configuration) report, the answer is to move 6th grade. That is what is best for our students, that is what is best for our school district, and I am sorry you didn’t have the courage to make that decision. I think we need to be student-focused on equity, opportunity for all of our students.”
Hardy said she believes district students would have been up for the change. She identified the 6th-grade population of 11- to 13-year-olds as particularly attuned to change due to their growth, transition into puberty and inquisitiveness.
“It’s the perfect time for them to move to a larger school with a more diverse student body and greater opportunities,” Hardy said. “I fear that adult fears of change are hindering our children’s abilities to embrace change and expand their opportunities.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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