Medford School District's newest plan to alleviate elementary school overcrowding and boost student achievement may seem familiar to veteran families of the school district.

Starting in fall of 2018, McLoughlin and Hedrick middle schools could house up to 120 sixth-graders each, with Ruch Community School taking in an additional 20, in a revamp of an early-2000s sixth-grade pilot program. The opt-in program, called the Sixth-Grade Academy, could take in about a quarter of the district's approximately 1,100 sixth-graders.

The name isn't the only thing that's changed since the pilot program. The student selection process, classroom structure and receiving schools all have been modified in the new program that administrators say offers sixth-graders opportunities to not only get an earlier taste of middle-school life but also more rigor in the classroom.

"This gives (families) a different opportunity than what we have now, and we think it’ll be exciting," said district spokeswoman Natalie Hurd.

Medford has adhered to a structure of K-6 elementary schools and seventh- and eighth-grade middle schools through decades of conversation about whether it should move sixth-graders to middle school, as does every neighboring district. That decision, however, is linked to other considerations, such as the need to build another middle school, which would require voter approval through a bond measure. Parents have also raised concerns about putting sixth-graders in school with seventh- and eighth-graders.

The academy provides a smaller-scale option. Parents who feel their sixth-graders are ready for middle school will apply so they can take higher-level math, for example, or multiple music or physical education classes per week. The district will begin providing information to parents in the new year about the application process and potential benefits.

The Sixth-Grade Academy will include the 20 slots at Ruch, which functions as a K-8 school.

Hurd said Ruch, with only 179 students, could be attractive to families because its curriculum focuses on sustainability through in-class and outdoor experiences. Its school week runs Tuesday to Friday.

"It's kind of a hidden gem of our district," Hurd said.

Chief Academic Officer Michelle Zundel presented the plan for the Sixth-Grade Academy to the school board Monday.

The district is still establishing its budget for the new program, but Hurd said costs associated with the academy are estimated to be low enough that the board won't have to approve a budget amendment.

Elementary Student Achievement Director Jeanne Grazioli said existing funds will cover potential costs such as hiring additional instructors and renovating classrooms to accommodate students.

Grazioli said that while the district is still weighing when to build another middle school, its long-range facilities plan requires that it work with existing facilities before then. 

"Part of our long-term facilities plan really speaks to making sure we’re using our district facilities before we consider building new schools," Grazioli said. "So this is one step."

Elementary schools whose populations exceed their maximum according to that same facilities plan would stand to benefit from having sixth-graders attend middle schools. If there are more requests than slots, the students will be chosen by lottery, but Zundel told the board members that preference will be given to students from the most crowded schools. 

Hoover Elementary School has the largest number of students among the elementary schools, and Hoover Principal Lynn Cataldo had experience with the pilot program. She taught at Hedrick in the early 2000s, and her daughter was placed there as a sixth-grader — and loved it, she said.

The pilot, which was scrapped after three years for budgetary reasons, yielded largely positive results, including higher test scores for seventh- and eighth-graders who had attended middle schools in sixth grade compared with those who did not.

One of the more intangible benefits Cataldo attributed to the pilot program was the contribution the sixth-graders made to the school community.

"Having a group of younger students there added another dimension," she said. "I think there were better parent connections made just because parents knew they would be there for three years. It added a nice sense of community."

 — Reach Mail Tribune reporter Kaylee Tornay at 541-776-4497 or ktornay@rosebudmedia.com. Follow her on twitter at www.twitter.com/ka_tornay.