With her ponytail bouncing, first-grader Grace Fisher trotted next to two seventh-grade cross-country runners during physical education class on an overcast day outside Ruch School.

With her ponytail bouncing, first-grader Grace Fisher trotted next to two seventh-grade cross-country runners during physical education class on an overcast day outside Ruch School.

Watching the stampede of first- and seventh-graders on the school's sawdust jogging trail, cross-country coach Scott Stemple said,

"You become a master of something when you teach it to others as opposed to always being the learner.

"Running with the seventh-graders gives the first-graders something to aspire to."

In an effort to avoid impending closure by the Medford School District, the rural campus of 215 pupils in the scenic Applegate Valley in 2005 converted from grades kindergarten through sixth to kindergarten through eighth and reduced its school week to four days to boost enrollment and trim operating expenses.

K-8 campuses — once the territory only of rural and parochial schools — are multiplying nationwide in urban and suburban public school systems.

"It's a national phenomenon," said David Hough, dean of the College of Education at Missouri State University and editor of Middle Grades Research Journal. "If the trend continues at the same pace, K-8 will outnumber other middle-school grade configurations in the next three to five years."

Many schools, like Ruch, have converted for purely practical reasons to reduce operating costs. The Medford School District is considering more K-8 campuses to help alleviate a $27 million deficit in its bond construction program.

But there is a growing belief among some educators that K-8 campuses offer academic and social benefits as well. The model has caught on in New York City, Portland, Pittsburgh and Salt Lake City, among others. In Oregon, there are 68 public K-8 campuses.

The model provides a seamless transition for students to middle-level grades, encourages better behavior by the older students, fosters a deeper sense of belonging for students, enhances parental involvement and allows more team teaching, said K-8 administrators.

Among sixth through eighth grades, administrators have reported improved attendance and fewer disciplinary referrals at K-8 schools. Some also report higher test scores than traditional middle schools in their same districts.

"When students transition from elementary to middle school there is a fair amount of energy that goes toward transition and posturing for social order and 'where do I fit in?'" said Nancy McCullum, principal of Meadow View School, a K-8 campus that opened 10 years ago in the Bethel district in Eugene. "We don't see nearly that level of transition here because many of the students have been here since kindergarten. They already know the social order, and they are far more ready to spend their energy on academics."

There is no national body of research that has tracked how overall scores, attendance and disciplinary referrals at K-8 campuses compare to traditional middle-school models of seventh and eighth grades or sixth through eighth grades, said Hough, who served as a consultant for Portland Public Schools when it converted several campuses this year from kindergarten through fifth grades and sixth through eighth grades to K-8.

"The big question is what grade span creates the best results for kids?" Hough said. "That question has still not been addressed on a national level in empirical ways."

In individual cases, K-8 campuses seem to perform better than traditional middle schools in test scores, attendance and discipline, Hough said.

Pittsburgh schools, where some campuses have been made into K-8, might be an example of that pattern.

Researchers with the RAND Corp. found in December 2005 that students in sixth through eighth grades from K-8 campuses in Pittsburgh generally achieved better academic scores than those at traditional middle schools in the same school system.

Hough attributed the growth of K-8 to the closure of schools in some urban areas and to the No Child Left Behind Act in 2001 when educators started to scrutinize data more closely and more often.

"They started noticing that students were doing well in elementary school and then, in middle school, those scores dropped," Hough said. "Educators are looking for ways to keep kids on track. That's what's been driving the change toward ele-middle schools, right or wrong."

The K-8 trend caught the attention of the Medford district earlier this year when an engineering study determined Jackson and Roosevelt elementary schools were uninhabitable because of crumbling bricks and weak roof trusses. Renovating the schools was expected to cost about $27 million, pushing the district's $189 million districtwide construction budget into the red. Meanwhile, dwindling enrollment in the district had left 1,000 empty elementary seats across the school system.

A task force charged with identifying ways to trim construction costs in the district's $189 million bond package has suggested closing Jackson and Roosevelt and opening K-8 campuses in part or all of the district. Some task force members see the option as a way to preserve neighborhood schools, where children can often walk to their classes, while cutting down on the district's overall construction and operating expenses.

The school board is expected to decide the fate of Jackson and Roosevelt as early as Nov. 6.

It's unlikely that a districtwide K-8 program would resemble the one in Ruch. Its close sense of community, small size and army of volunteers allow the school to offer electives and sports that otherwise wouldn't be possible because of funding limitations.

Some educators said grade configuration is less important than other factors, such as curriculum and interaction between teachers and students.

"The grade configuration is not the important thing," said Jill O'Neill, president of the Oregon Middle Level Association and principal of Meadow Park Middle School in Beaverton. "There is no body of research saying one is better than the other. But we do know that middle-level students learn better when they have significant relationships with adults and other students, have curriculum that is relevant to their daily lives and feel challenged."

Ruch parents, students and teachers said the K-8 structure fosters strong relationships between adults and children, giving children a sense of security and a desire to please.

"There is a confidence they get here that they don't get at the middle school," said Mickey Slack, mother of two Ruch students.

Slack said she was initially concerned about keeping elementary and middle school pupils on one campus, but over time, she found the students were generally segregated. When there is interaction, it's supervised, she said.

The closeness to elementary students inspires seventh- and eighth-graders to demonstrate some of their best behavior for their younger peers, parents and students said.

"I think the younger kids look up to me," said seventh-grader Zarina Jensen. "They think the seventh- and eighth-graders are cool and do what we do, and we try to teach them good stuff."

Other schools who have converted to K-8 have reported a similar phenomenon.

"When the parents bring the elementary kids to school in the morning, you don't see the older students messing around the way they usually do at middle school campuses," said Antonio Lopez, principal of Clarendon-Portsmouth, a K-8 school in Portland created this year through the merging of Clarendon Elementary and Portsmouth Middle School.

At most ele-middle schools, different grade levels share activities, whether it's jogging during physical education at Ruch or having older pupils help younger ones in their reading, which encourages learning at both levels.

Many of the parents who were once opposed to the K-8 concept have been won over, administrators said.

"We've had a positive reception from parents," McCullum said. "The fears that 'the middle school students will corrupt my first- or second-grader' have long been dispelled."

A byproduct of the model is increased adult supervision because more teachers and parents, often visiting their younger children, are on campus.

"It's good for families because they can keep their kids in one setting and communication with one school," McCullum said.

Portland turned to K-8 campuses mostly out of necessity when over the years, its student population shrunk from 80,000 to 46,000.

By combining the grades, the school system can save in fixed operational costs for utilities, building insurance, maintenance, administration, office support, custodians and campus monitors.

When Roseway Heights, a K-8, formed in Portland out of Rose City Elementary and Gregory Heights Middle School, "there was a lot of angst and anger about it at both school sites," said Principal Mary Dingle. "There will definitely always be naysayers, but I think more people are aboard than not."

Reach reporter Paris Achen at 541-776-4459 or pachen@mailtribune.com.