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John Muir School not set to close

About 50 parents of John Muir School students met with Ashland School District Superintendent Juli Di Chiro Thursday night to learn about changes in the K-8 magnet school and across the district starting in the fall.

Di Chiro quickly squelched rumors that the small magnet school with four classes would close, the students transferred or funds decreased.

The most significant changes affect students in sixth, seventh and eighth grades, where there is the highest attrition. Those three grades will now share one teacher. At present, one teacher is responsible for seventh and eighth grades.

While parents and teachers expressed concern over the change, Di Chiro said it would allow older students time for independent learning, which is more difficult for younger students.

Di Chiro acknowledged that Common Core demands will be more difficult to meet.

"It's challenging any time a teacher is trying to teach a three-level span," said Di Chiro. "But independent work is not as valuable to younger kids."

To stabilize middle-school class sizes across the district, parents will be required to decide by April 30 whether their child will attend Ashland Middle School, John Muir or Willow Wind Community Learning Center. And transferring during the school year will now require administrative review, said Di Chiro.

These changes, she said, are to address trends of older children coming into the magnet school that was designed for students from K-8. She also hopes to stabilize enrollment, balance staff loads and classrooms, and to pave the way for sustainable enrollment.

This year, only six of the 33 students in John Muir's three upper grades have been attending the school for more than three years.

"The middle-school program has not materialized as we all hoped," Di Chiro wrote to teachers. "I cannot in good conscience continue a system that results in such an unbalanced 7th-8th grade class. And I feel that it is important that I be the one to make this change rather than leave this for the new superintendent."

Di Chiro will retire this summer after 13 years as superintendent. The search for her replacement continues.

Another change at John Muir is that new students will be admitted only to grades K-5. This new restriction will make room for more kindergarten students, where there is the most demand, and allow those students to begin nine years of the school's natural science- and art-focused curriculum, said Di Chiro.

New-student applications were due March 21. Enrollment is capped at 110.

With the changes, the number of kindergarten students would increase from eight to 12. Upper-level class sizes are about 13, about half the size of other district schools.

The school was named a Title I Distinguished School by the Oregon Department of Education for its "exceptional student performance" over the last three years.

Thursday's 90-minute meeting was held in the Ashland Middle School library, adjacent to the John Muir School wing. School board members also attended.

Addressing parent proposals, Di Chiro said their ideas would require more staff, funding and space, and that John Muir receives $835 more per student than other district elementary schools on average.

"It's expensive to run this program," she said. "No new expenditures can occur."

Not announced at the meeting was that Tiffany Burns will remain as John Muir's principal, as well as serving as AMS's assistant principal for the 2013-14 school year.

"This is the original model we had for administration at John Muir, and we are returning to that model next year," said Di Chiro.

Speaking on behalf of the school's Parent-Teacher Collective, Ramana Waymire stated, "The decision to make any changes to John Muir School is rushed."

Jenny Johnson, who has four children — one in each class at John Muir — also attended the meeting.

"I understand that Juli is trying to find solutions to our problems of middle-school attrition and staff stress, but what she's proposing won't solve those problems," said Johnson, who added that parents are open to change and want to do what is best for students and teachers.

"It's irrational to move forward with so little teacher and community support," she said.

Reach reporter Janet Eastman at 541-776-4465 or jeastman@dailytidings.com.