School & District Management

City Districts Embracing K-8 Schools

By Catherine Gewertz — May 19, 2004 8 min read
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When Shuronia B. Jacox walks the linoleum hallways of her school, she can’t hide the frustration that comes with being in transition. Her school recently changed from a K-6 grade configuration to K-8.

Promising things are taking shape here. The young teenagers don’t act up as much as they do in stand-alone middle schools. They serve as tutors, safety patrols, and role models for the youngest students, walking them protectively to the cafeteria at lunch. The 8th graders have been here so long that teachers know their siblings, their troubles, their birthdays.

Ms. Jacox has a lot of company on the journey from an elementary school to one that serves kindergarten through 8th grade. Baltimore is part of a growing trend that is seeing hundreds of urban public schools converted into “K-8s.”

Cincinnati, Cleveland, Milwaukee, New York, and Philadelphia are among the districts making the change, driven by a small body of research and a rising pile of anecdotes suggesting that K-8 configurations help academic performance, decrease discipline problems, enhance parent involvement, and save money.

At Ms. Jacox’s school, the reality of daily life at her school hasn’t quite caught up with the name out front: Arundel Elementary/Middle School. The science and computer labs aren’t finished. Many of the chairs aren’t big enough for gangly 14-year-olds. The gym teacher must think up activities appropriate for a 10-year age span. There is no guidance counselor to manage the issues middle schoolers face.

“Does it work all the time?” said Ms. Jacox, who’s in her fifth year as the principal here. “It’s not a perfect world. We still have a lot to do. But we’re on our way, I think.”

The trend has its share of skeptics, who note with irony that the education world moved away from K-8s, which were common until the early 1900s, because of the belief that young adolescents were best served in schools tailored to their age group.

“This is another attempt at a magic bullet, which is much easier than getting down to the really hard work of preparing teachers to work with this age group, having strong curricula for this age group, and having personalized schools that hold high expectations for all kids and also meet their developmental needs,” said Joan Lipsitz, a founding member of the National Forum to Accelerate Middle Grades Reform.

Part of a Larger Plan

The wave of K-8 reorganizations comes as educators, pressured by new federal mandates, are seeking ways to boost student achievement. Most district leaders who favor the K-8 model see it as one part of an overhaul that includes smaller, more personalized schools able to meet the needs of varying age groups with improved curricula and better staff training.

In New York City, a three-year plan envisions creating 200 or more smaller schools in K-8, 6-12, and 9-12 configurations, including 15 elementary schools that will convert to K-8s in the fall.

Michele Cahill, a senior policy adviser to Schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein, said the plan is part of an effort to create schools “at a more human scale,” forge strong pupil-teacher connections, and minimize school-to-school transitions.

The new grade configurations, paired with revamped, better-aligned curricula, should lend themselves to more continuity from elementary through secondary school, Ms. Cahill said.

In Philadelphia, district leaders hope to bring a more uniform approach to a system that has long used a wide variety of grade configurations, said Nancy J. McGinley, who as the executive director of the Philadelphia Education Fund and the leader of a middle-grades task force is working closely with the district’s chief executive officer, Paul G. Vallas, on the K-8 plan.

One third of the city’s middle-grades students attend K-6, K-7, or K-8 schools. The district hopes that by 2008, the vast majority will attend K-8s, with an upgraded middle school curriculum and teachers certified for that age group, said Ms. McGinley.

The task won’t be easy; 94 percent of the teachers now teaching 6th, 7th, and 8th graders are K-6 certified, she said. The district acknowledges that “major initiatives” in professional development “must be launched immediately” for the conversions to succeed, according to its own overview of the plan.

And much work remains to be done to devise a middle-grades program that is challenging and suited to the age group, Ms. McGinley said.

But the 190,000-student district holds out hope that, if implemented well, the changes will prove positive. Studies of Philadelphia schools show that 8th graders who attended K-8s scored higher on the Stanford Achievement Test-9th Edition, got better grades in 9th grade, scored better on state tests, and attended selective high schools at greater rates than their peers in middle schools.

Officials also hope K-8s might stem the flow of families to charter schools and to the suburbs, Ms. McGinley said.

In Cincinnati, the conversion is already complete. A 1991 pilot test showed better attendance and fewer disciplinary problems in six elementary schools that became K-8s.

In 1996, the district began moving all of its schools in that direction, said Christine Wolff, a spokeswoman for the 39,000-student system. Now all of its 59 regular elementary schools include kindergarten through 8th grade, she said. “We’re happy enough with it that we’re continuing this way.”

Milwaukee now has 30 K-8 schools, with another 20 in various stages of transition, said Arlene Sershon, an administrative analyst to Superintendent William Andrekopoulos. Seven more will join that group this coming fall, she said.

The decision to pursue the K-8 configuration is part of the 97,000-student district’s drive to meet parents’ needs and save money, said Ms. Sershon.

Milwaukee is adding thousands of seats in city schools to enable all children to attend neighborhood schools, a policy that answers parents’ desire to have children close by and addresses the district’s difficulty in shouldering massive transportation costs to bus students to schools of choice, she said. (“Hearts and Minds,” this issue.)

“We want schools to be anchors in their communities,” Ms. Sershon said. “We see all this as a very positive development.”

Nonetheless, she said, programming for older students at the K-8s might not parallel that of the district’s middle schools. Having fewer students per grade might make it hard to hire teachers who specialize in the subjects they teach. Middle-grades students might be more likely to attend school in self-contained classrooms that approximate those of grades K-5, said Ms. Sershon.

Cleveland began its K-8 experiment in 1999 with four K-8 schools, and now has 23 completed or in transition, with 29 more to join that group in the fall, said Chief Executive Officer Barbara Byrd-Bennett.

No conversion proceeds unless it has the support of 75 percent of a school’s parents, she said. She has not yet seen a case in which support for a conversion was insufficient.

“It’s become a groundswell from the community, saying we want K-8s,” Ms. Byrd-Bennett said.

The 72,000-student district’s data show that last year, 58 percent of the 6th graders at K-8s tested as proficient in reading, compared with 43 percent in 6-8 schools. In math, 44 percent of the 6th graders at K-8s scored at that level of achievement, compared with 30 percent in 6-8 schools. Middle schools reported a suspension rate of 30 percent, while at K-8s the figure was 17 percent.

Ms. Byrd-Bennett attributes the improvements largely to grade continuity. Students can focus more on learning when they know their teachers and their building, and don’t have to jockey for social position in a new school, she said. Parent involvement in the K-8s has increased sharply, she says, because parents have a history with the staff, and are more likely to have multiple children at the school, so they attend more school events.

Fears abounded when the conversion was first proposed five years ago at Cleveland’s Forest Hill Parkway Academy, said Principal Linda T. Hardwick.

“Teachers didn’t want to teach older youngsters. I had to retrain them,” Ms. Hardwick said. Some parents didn’t want their little ones in with “almost-grown” youths, so some did leave, she said.

The first couple of years, the school didn’t have its full complement of extracurricular activities for the older students, and lacked enough teachers certified in their subjects, she said. Now those problems have eased, Ms. Hardwick said, and the school’s 400 students are benefiting from long relationships with staff members. Teachers can consult across grades about a student’s problems, and they know the families well enough to help effectively when family concerns arise.

In Baltimore, K-8 schools have been growing for a decade, driven largely by parents’ desires to keep children in the neighborhood, acting Chief Academic Officer Linda M. Chinnia said in a phone interview.

K-8 students are outperforming their peers in middle schools, she said, and are having fewer disciplinary problems. But with 22 middle schools and 23 K-8s now, the 90,000-student Maryland district wants to better refine the instructional program before proceeding with more K-8s, Ms. Chinnia said.

Political Overtones?

Michael L. Hamilton, the president of the Baltimore Council of PTAs, said many parents like the idea of K-8s for their proximity and sense of safety and community, but worry that families in wealthier neighborhoods or with political connections have been more successful in lobbying for them. Reports in at least two cities show that K-8s tend to serve a wealthier population, a dynamic critics claim could partly explain their performance.

“It should be about what’s good for kids, not about political clout,” Mr. Hamilton said.

Some parents also have expressed concern to Mr. Hamilton that K-8s could produce more segregated middle schools by drawing on smaller geographic areas than would a middle school fed by several elementaries.

The greatest worry for many experts is that too much focus will be trained on the configuration at the expense of what goes on in the classroom.

“K-8 looks awfully appealing politically. It looks like you’re doing something,” said Sondra Cooney, who works on middle-grades issues as a special consultant to the Southern Regional Education Board in Atlanta. “But the most important thing is having a highly qualified teacher in every classroom, knowing what to teach and how to teach it.”

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A version of this article appeared in the May 19, 2004 edition of Education Week as City Districts Embracing K-8 Schools


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