A proposal to reconfigure two Richmond County high schools by adding sixth through eighth grades is a relatively uncommon move in education today, but is a strategy used by other large, urban districts to help boost student achievement.
On Tuesday, Philadelphia-based education consultant Bill Montgomery suggested the district close Murphey Middle School and merge those students into its feeder T.W. Josey Comprehensive High School. He proposed the same scenario for Sego Middle and Butler High schools.
The reconfiguration was pitched to solve enrollment issues at the high schools, which are both under capacity, but another motive is to expose the younger students to more academic opportunities earlier on, said Superintendent Frank Roberson.
“The education model that we plan to implement is called Early College, and that’s preparing students to be able to matriculate high school and go directly to college without any need for remediation or academic adjustments,” Roberson said.
Such a grade configuration is relatively rare today, with 3,106 U.S. public schools using the 6-12 model compared to 15,442 with the traditional 9-12 grades, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
Research on the 6-12 model’s effectiveness is almost nonexistent, but other urban districts that have used it have touted the benefits for retention and academic enrichment.
When Andres Alonso became Baltimore City Schools Chief Executive Officer in 2007, he pushed the model to combat a severe dropout problem in the ninth and 10th grades and help stop high transiency in middle school.
After four years and 15 new 6-12 schools, the dropout rate improved by 60 percent and enrollment that had been falling for years leveled, Alonso said.
“Students were coming in behind in terms of their academics and they were beginning to face extreme challenges around having to work to support their families, they had problems around transportation and teachers didn’t have enough time to sort of hook them,” said Alonso, who left Baltimore in 2013 to become a professor in the Harvard Graduate School of Education. “One response to that was this notion of ‘Well, why are we stuck in this deal that kids have to come in ninth grade? Why can’t we stretch that downward and create the kinds of personal relationships that create a kind of magnetic power?’”
Today the 6-12 schools perform lower than the 9-12 models in Baltimore. But since middle school achievement consistently ranks below other grades nationwide, Alonso said the configuration creates a natural pull in the data.
“These schools became places for students that would have a huge impact on them as a places of community,” he said. “If done (correctly), this can be instrumental in changing students for the better.”
Cincinnati Public Schools began phasing out 6-8 middle schools in the 90s to develop more K-8 models, which do show benefits to students in recent research.
According to a 2011 study by Harvard University Associate Professor of Education Martin West, students in K-8 schools avoid the drop in achievement that children in 6-8 schools experience because of a rough transition.
The K-8 models opened the door for 7-12 schools as CPS invested in new construction over the last decade in the district of 33,000 kids with a 72 percent free and reduced lunch rate, similar to Richmond County. Spokesperson Christine Wolff said the seventh- and eighth-grade students are exposed to more rigourous high school courses and preparation.
Teachers are also able to reach students earlier to deliver remediation and get to know them on a personal level.
Despite initial concerns about mixing age groups, Wolff said older high school students are selected to mentor and tutor those in younger grades, which benefits both groups. A 2011 analysis by The Cincinnati Enquirer showed seventh- and eighth-grade students in the 7-12 buildings outperformed those grades in the K-8 schools.
“Our main idea was bringing the kids into the building earlier to get them focused on high school graduation and to have them be prepared for the more rigourous work,” Wolff said.
In 1999, The Preuss School opened in San Diego, Calif., as a public charter school to serve low-income students whose parents did not attend college.
Principal Scott Barton said the 6-12 model was chosen strategically so educators could drill college preparation into students as young as 10 years old.
Middle school students take Advanced Placement classes and are tutored and mentored by their older classmates.
The school has a nearly 99 percent graduation rate, and almost 90 percent of graduates are accepted into four-year colleges, Barton said.
The middle and high school students take classes in separate wings, but Barton said he believes they benefit greatly from mingling on the bus and between classes despite hesitation from some parents about the potential issues.
“It has been really good for us,” Barton said of the 2010 Blue Ribbon School. “The role model aspect plus the tutoring has been a tremendous benefit. I wouldn’t want it any other way.”
While the Richmond County Board of Education must still hold three public meetings on the proposal next month before voting, architectural plans for the schools are taking shape.
Senior Director of Facilities and Maintenance Benton Starks said each high school would have a middle school wing added, so the students would not be completely mixed.
He said the plan is to have students eat lunch and use the gym separately – but the middle school students would still have access to the college preparation and academic programs they wouldn’t have before.
“It would be a state of the art facility, and something everyone would be very proud of,” Starks said.