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Medford narrows options for balancing school bond

The Medford School District narrowed its options Tuesday for trimming costs from its $189 million bond package, expressing some favor for a proposal to close two elementary schools previously scheduled for renovation and shift sixth-graders districtwide to three middle schools.

The proposal entails permanently closing Jackson and Roosevelt elementary schools, building a new South Medford High School at Columbus and Cunningham avenues and remodeling the existing South Medford into a third district middle school.

The sixth-through-eighth-grade model "is something we've thought about doing for a long time," said Tricia Prendergast, school board member. "It's hard to dip in and get comfortable in a school for two years. With three years, we can create more of a social milieu. At that age, it really helps them to feel confident, relaxed and in an educational mode."

Still on the table is an option that would leave the district's grade configuration at status quo by scrapping the new South Medford project, renovating the existing South Medford High for continued high school use and revamping Jackson and Roosevelt. Students in kindergarten through sixth grade would continue to attend the existing elementary schools, while Hedrick and McLoughlin middle schools would remain seventh and eighth grades.

That option could prevail if expenses for building the new high school continue to rise after fires in Southern California and a school construction spree in Oregon, where more than $1 billion in school projects are in the works.

Both options would solve the district's bond budget crisis, but board members said variations of the two options are also possible. Expenses for 18 school construction projects in the November 2006 bond package are $27 million in the red, in large part because of unexpected costs associated with building a new high school and addressing structural hazards at Jackson and Roosevelt.

The school board dismissed proposals Tuesday that would have established kindergarten-through-eighth-grade campuses in part or all of the district after strong community opposition to it.

Currently, the school district has nearly 1,000 empty seats at the elementary level. Some schools, such as Wilson, Jefferson and Oak Grove, are overcrowded, while others, such as Jacksonville, are under capacity.

By closing Jackson and Roosevelt (both with a capacity for 450 pupils), moving the more than 900 sixth-graders in the district to three middle schools and redistricting 11 elementary schools to absorb Jackson and Roosevelt students, the district would still have space for elementary growth.

The plan would likely cost more operationally but would save expenses in construction associated with remodeling Jackson and Roosevelt.

In terms of administration, office support, utilities and maintenance, an elementary school costs about $500,000 per year to operate while a middle school costs about $1.5 million.

The school board briefly considered opening K-8 schools as a way to close Jackson and Roosevelt while preserving neighborhood schools and eliminating the transition between elementary and middle school.

But at a public hearing earlier in the month, parents voiced strong opposition to the K-8 model, mostly out of fear of exposing elementary children to the high-risk behavior of some middle schoolers.

Nationwide, middle schools of sixth through eighth grades are the most popular, though K-8 schools have been gaining momentum, especially in urban areas such as Portland and New York City, according to the National Association of Secondary School Principals.

"There is no research that shows one middle school grade configuration fosters more student achievement than another," said Patricia Kinney, former principal at Talent Middle School and current head of the middle-level leadership program for the NASSP. "When you look at a quality middle school program, it has close relationships between teachers and students, the opportunity for teachers to work together and the feeling of being connected."

In Jackson County, all the school districts except for Medford and Butte Falls follow the sixth-through-eighth-grade model.

Kinney was a sixth-grade teacher in the Ashland School District when it converted to sixth-through-eighth-grade campuses in 1985. She took a position as assistant principal at Talent Middle School in 1990 when it switched to the same model to increase extracurricular and upper-level class offerings for sixth-graders.

"I taught sixth-graders at an elementary school and at a middle school, and I didn't see much of difference in the way they behaved," Kinney said. "What I did see was sixth-graders who were advanced in math being able to get higher-level math classes and who were able to take specialty-area electives, explore more things and have the opportunity to interact with more kids."

Some Medford parents seem to be more comfortable with the sixth-through-eighth-grade model.

"Personally, I liked the six-through-eight model," said Ed Chun, father of a first-grader and fifth-grader at Lone Pine Elementary. "The kids get to stay at the school for three years. The way it is now at Hedrick Middle School, as soon as students get their feet wet and catch on to things, they have to move on to high school. It seems they end up losing a sense of school spirit and belonging being at the middle school for just two years."

The Medford district operated a voluntary sixth-grade pilot at Hedrick and McLoughlin middle schools between the 2001-02 and 2003-04 school years to examine the benefits and drawbacks of the model. More than 200 sixth-graders participated in the pilot from across the district.

"Many parents were disappointed when it ended," Prendergast said.

The pilot was later scrapped because of severe cuts in state public school funding after the Sept. 11 attacks and a lack of space. A bond measure in November 2002 to build a third middle school and technical high school failed.

"Educationally, six-through-eight was where we were headed," said Medford schools Superintendent Phil Long. "Whether or not we'll be able to do that, we don't know."

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