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Medford headed to 6-8 middle schools

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After 12 years driving every school bus route in the Rogue Valley, Pastor Lee Gregory will tell you that sixth-graders are no less likely to see bad behavior on routes to elementary schools than they would on those to middle school.

"What I'm really saying is, hey, you're worried about their behavior and influence when they get on an older bus?" he said. "You oughta be concerned about influence they're having on the younger buses at the same time."

Sixth-graders busing with older students is one of a few parent concerns tied to the idea of moving those students from elementary to middle schools in the Medford School District.

Administrators in favor of the plan, parents against it and employees from principals to bus drivers all seemed to agree on at least one thing: that ongoing collaboration between schools and families is critical to easing students’ transition.

Medford officials say sixth-graders moving to a secondary school is a matter of when, not if.

“We are following the recommendation of the Sixth Grade Task Force that was convened a couple of years ago, that sixth-graders should be in middle school with seventh- and eighth-graders,” said Jeanne Grazioli, Medford’s director of elementary student achievement. “It does set a long-term goal that we do have.”

Parents were included in the Sixth Grade Task Force, which met through 2015 and 2016. A districtwide decision to move those students has been a talking point in committees and school board meetings for at least two decades.

Medford School District’s most recent step was to transfer Oak Grove Elementary School’s sixth-graders to McLoughlin Middle School starting next year. They will take between 70 and 80 spots at McLoughlin’s Sixth Grade Academy, a program that keeps those students in a mostly-sheltered environment with minimal interactions with seventh- and eighth-graders.

The idea drew mixed reactions from parents who gave the school district feedback. The 26 people who responded to an online survey the district circulated were 50 percent in favor of the idea, according to a district memo.

Slightly more — 54 percent — thought that the switch would be good for their child and 56 percent said they supported the idea of a sixth-through-eighth-grade middle school model.

But while parents of fifth-graders at every other elementary school in Medford can still choose not to send their children to a different school next year, Oak Grove parents no longer can.

Amanda Overbeck, president of the Oak Grove parent-teacher organization, said that since she already had decided she didn’t want to send her daughter Savannah to the Sixth Grade Academy, the district’s decision made her feel like it hadn’t listened to her and other parents’ concerns.

“Do I want to homeschool? Do I want to send her to private school? Do I want to switch to an intradistrict transfer?” she said, listing the options she’s now considering. “And even then, that’s inconvenient because there’s no busing options or anything like that.”

Overbeck is employed at Oak Grove as a campus monitor and had counted on having Savannah near her for another year.

She said if officials had implemented a districtwide switch to move sixth-graders up to the middle school level, she would probably feel differently.

“I wouldn’t be thrilled about it, but knowing that every school in the district was going would be a little bit more appealing, I guess,” she said. “I wouldn’t feel like my child specifically is getting gypped out of something that nobody else is.”

Grazioli said because the Sixth Grade Academy at Hedrick Middle School, unlike McLoughlin, has more applications than it can satisfy, the district didn’t want to move all the sixth-graders from another school there. While increased expected enrollment factored heavily in the Oak Grove decision, McLoughlin still will be able to offer spots to its other feeder elementary schools next year.

“We could fill all of Hedrick with Hoover students, but we want to give other kids some opportunity at the other schools as well,” she said.

‘We always have parents that are concerned’

Grazioli sent a letter to Oak Grove parents on Jan. 15, which stated that the district planned to ease students out of their elementary school environment.

“If we move forward with this proposal, we will plan meaningful transition to middle school activities for all fifth graders,” her letter read.

Parent worries about sixth-graders moving to middle school have often centered on the behavior of older students and what sixth-graders might be exposed to by being near them.

When Medford officials were considering temporarily placing fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders from Roosevelt and Jackson elementary schools in Hedrick and McLoughlin middle schools in 2007 due to drastic renovations needed at the elementary schools, one parent told the Mail Tribune, “My biggest concern is that when I drive by Hedrick and I see how those middle-schoolers behave.”

In Eagle Point School District, where sixth-grade students have been learning in a middle school setting for years, transitional activities help ease that discomfort.

Karina Rizo, who has been principal at White Mountain Middle School for six years, said that she tries to build relationships with parents and students before they arrive — she attends elementary school assemblies and events, and fifth-graders are invited to a barbecue in the spring.

Both incoming sixth-graders to the middle school and ninth-graders to the high school also attend a weeklong orientation at their new campus in the summer before their first year there.

“We always have parents that are concerned, my kids are too little,” Rizo said. “I think all of the activities that we do really help them feel better.”

Middle school opportunities

McLoughlin Principal Kelly Soter is one of several Medford School District staff who also sees the middle school discussion from a parent perspective. Her daughter, Abbie, is one of the 78 students in her school’s Sixth Grade Academy this year.

“I feel like it’s going to take a little bit of getting used to for some people, but it is really fun and it’s an easier way of introducing sixth-graders to middle school,” Abbie said.

Kelly said that the presence of sixth-graders at the school allows for mentorship opportunities with older students, as well as offers students greater variety in their school day by moving to different classrooms and visiting their lockers.

Students also get an additional year to participate in electives such as music classes (at the elementary level music classes are shorter and less frequently offered) and extracurriculars such as sports.

Those opportunities are what Marta Hurley, the former president of Oak Grove’s parent-teacher organization, said she saw for her son, who is a participant in this year’s Sixth Grade Academy at McLoughlin.

He’s taking eighth-grade math, an option that she said he wouldn’t have had if he had stayed in the elementary school.

Last school year, Hurley said, her son had told her that he felt restless at his elementary school.

“He felt like at the (elementary) school that it’s geared more for the younger kids who are there,” she said. “He had expressed to me how he was ready for the next phase.”

In a student survey that Medford School District administered this year, a majority of Oak Grove fifth-graders — 85 percent — expressed that they wanted to attend sixth grade in the middle school.

“If you talk to sixth-graders themselves they really are here as middle-schoolers,” Kelly Soter said. “They want to be fully integrated as middle-schoolers.”

Another annual student survey that Medford administers at elementary, middle and high schools, called Youth Truth, in which students rate their schools in a variety of factors, showed that sixth-graders in the academies signaled a higher level of engagement with their education than their peers in elementary schools.

Some research highlights drawbacks to the three-grade middle school model. Another parent who spoke at the Medford School Board’s Feb. 25 meeting pointed to it while voicing her opposition to the district’s Oak Grove plan.

A 2007 study from Duke University showed that sixth-graders who went to middle schools tended to have more disciplinary incidents than those who stayed at the elementary level. They also had lower test scores.

Many roads ahead

Across Oregon, it’s clear that school districts are far from agreed on one model. Though sixth-through-eighth-grade middle school is the most common structure, its margin of majority has decreased slightly in the last two years, according to data from the Oregon Department of Education.

Of the 341 schools in Oregon that house “middle schoolers” (the state counts sixth through eighth grade), 45 percent — 155 schools — are sixth-through-eighth-grade models. Since the Mail Tribune last requested data in 2016, K-12 schools have more than doubled in the overall figure.

Two years ago, Oregon had 20 K-12 schools. This academic year, 48 of those schools exist in the state.

Other models where you can find sixth-graders include 109 K-8 schools (Ruch Outdoor Community School in the Medford district is one) and five campuses statewide that house fifth through eighth grade.

Medford school officials have been clearer on their direction since the Sixth Grade Task Force made its recommendation: It wants more sixth-graders headed to middle schools.

Enrollment and space at both the elementary and middle level will heavily influence that process.

“We would like it to happen at more schools,” Grazioli said, “but we don’t have the capacity to do this at all schools.”

Medford officials have not announced more plans to accommodate expected increases in enrollment and move sixth-graders from other schools. The district has floated a plan to convert Central Medford High School’s building into a third middle school, but the School Board has not discussed the topic in a meeting since officials held two listening sessions in January to gather public input.

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

McLoughlin Middle School students sing during band, choir and orchestra class on Wednesday. A survey showed fifth-graders at Oak Grove liked the idea of making the leap from elementary to middle school. Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune
Some Medford sixth-graders have a home in middle school, but Oak Grove parents no longer have a choice.