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Sixth Grade Academy fine, for now

The Medford School District is taking another tentative step toward sending sixth-graders to middle school. Eventually, the district is likely to make the shift permanent for all students because it makes sense for educational a well as financial reasons, but for now, just 260 students will get the opportunity to try it out.

Some Medford elementary schools are experiencing overcrowding, and shifting sixth-graders to middle schools will alleviate that to some extent. Starting next fall, Hedrick and McLoughlin middle schools will take up to 120 sixth-graders each, and 20 more will be able to attend Ruch Community School, which serves students from kindergarten through eighth grade.

Moving all 1,100 sixth-graders in the district out of elementary schools would require new middle schools — something that is in the district's long-term plans but would require a voter-approved bond issue. In the meantime, the district is committed to making the most efficient use of the facilities it has before building new ones.

That's great from a fiscal prudence standpoint, but it means only about a quarter of the district's sixth-graders will be able to attend middle school. That's unfortunate, but understandable given the financial realities of tight school budgets.

Most other districts in the county already include sixth-graders in middle school, as do many districts statewide. Educators say the model makes sense for students because sixth-graders are developmentally ready for the middle-school environment and do better there than in an elementary school setting. A task force of Medford parents, teachers and administrators also reached that conclusion in 2015.

It would also help the district deal with enrollment growth. At this point, district officials are considering two new middle schools — one in the northeast part of town and one at the current site of Central Medford High School in the southwest area. Building just one for grades 6-8 would result in three middle schools of 1,100 students each, among the biggest in the state. Four would mean school populations of about 825, a more manageable size.

For now, though, the district is proposing a partial shift of 260 sixth-graders to the existing middle schools. That's great for those students who get the opportunity, but most sixth-graders will remain at the elementary level. In the long term, new middle schools accommodating sixth-graders is the way to go.