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Reversing Field in Houston: Return to K-6 Schools?

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Only three years after completing a major reorganization that established middle schools for grades 6-8, educators in Houston are undertaking a pilot program that would transfer many 6th graders back into elementary schools.

School officials there say they have concluded that the new arrangement--which requires students to change classes at least six times a day--fails to meet the social and intellectual needs of 6th-grade pupils.

Since the 1985 overhaul, virtually all of the district's 14,078 6th graders have been assigned to 33 middle schools.

The number of 6th graders who will return to elementary schools when the pilot program begins next fall has not yet been determined, officials said. And no decision has been made, they said, about how participants in the project will be selected.

Superintendent of Schools Joan Raymond proposed the plan, which was approved by the board of education last month.

Larry Yawn, a spokesman for the district, said that Ms. Raymond, who has been superintendent since 1986, feels that middle schools do not adequately address the educational needs of 6th-grade students.

"They should not be put into 'mini' high schools at grade 6 and be asked to go from class to class for six periods,'' he said. "Young children need a more stable environment with more continuity.''

The superintendent also thinks the test scores of these students would improve if they remained in one classroom, said Trudy Herolz, another district spokesman.

The pilot program counters the current national trend toward including 6th graders in middle and junior high schools. The few school systems that have moved 6th graders back into elementary schools, observers say, have been motivated by overcrowding, not by pedagogical considerations.

'More Stable Environment'

Under the plan endorsed by the Houston board, district officials will draw up a list of elementary schools that have room for the new students. They must then seek the support of the schools' staff members and parents for the transfers.

The officials, who have not yet determined how much the program will cost, say they hope to complete their initial planning this summer and to begin the pilot program in the fall.

Lillie Carswell, president of the Houston Teachers Association, said many members of her group agree that 6th graders are not mature enough for middle school. "It's quite an adjustment for them,'' she said.

The plan may be stymied, however, by chronic overcrowding in many of the district's elementary schools, which typically serve K-5 pupils. This condition may worsen, administrators say, if the district is forced to comply with a state law that limits K-4 class size to 22.

Many district schools have received waivers since 1986, when the law affected only K-2 classes. Next fall, it will also apply to grades 3 and 4.

Ms. Raymond has told board members that overcrowding will require the district to ask for an additional set of waivers from the new requirement.

District officials estimate that to comply fully with the law, they will need a total of 518 additional classrooms to expand 97 of their 166 elementary schools.

Mr. Yawn said district officials are optimistic about finding adequate space for 6th-grade students on the less-crowded elementary-school campuses.

But the school board, said its president, Brad Raffle, is less sanguine.

"We approved this on a limited basis, on a pilot basis,'' he said. "A more realistic option will be to separate the children into a special part of the middle school.''

Some argue, however, that merely shifting 6th-grade students from one setting to another may not adequately address their academic needs.

"Sixth-graders don't need a single classroom or a highly departmentalized program,'' said John Lounsbury, professor emeritus of education at Georgia College and the author of a recent study on the 6th-grade curriculum. (See Education Week, March 9, 1988.)

Instead, Mr. Lounsbury and others argue, 6th graders should be taught through an interdisciplinary, team approach. This method, they maintain, feeds the 6th grader's growing sense of identity.

That view is echoed by Willie R. Gentry, president of the Houston Association of School Administrators.

"Several years ago, when the system was reorganized, they changed the names of the schools from junior high schools to middle schools,'' he said. "But they really remained junior high schools.''

"If middle schools had been given an opportunity to operate as they should have, according to the research of experts, I think we would not have had the problems we are having, '' he said.

Mr. Gentry said his group would endorse the pilot program in a position paper to be released this week. It will recommend that the district compare the academic progress of 6th graders in both types of instructional settings a year from now, and that more middle schools adopt the team approach.

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