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The K-8 Bunch

K-8 schools are growing in popularity across the country. Do they really lead to fewer discipline pr

Lyle Rowland knows the name of each of the 238 students enrolled at Taneyville R-II School District, a K-8 district just east of Branson, Mo. What's more, he knows their parents, where they live and how some families earn their living.

In fact, he says this more intimate K-8 school structure creates a responsive learning environment that boosts student achievement and minimizes disruptive behavior more than traditional elementary and middle schools. And Rowland should know, he's been a principal and superintendent at various K-8 and K-12 school districts for the past 30 years.

These reasons, in a nutshell, are driving one of the hottest education trends today, the K-8 school. Rowland says K-8 schools outshine other delivery models.

"It's not about the grade span but what goes on in the classroom." -Nancy Ames, vice president, Education Development Center

Apparently, other administrators agree. Over the past several years, Cleveland, Denver, Phoenix, Philadelphia, Milwaukee and other districts formed K-8 schools in hopes of reaching similar student outcomes: enhanced academic performance, improved behavior and a smoother transition into high school. In the end, some believe they'll gain more control over the learning process.

"If it's performance you're after, less discipline, there are different ways of accomplishing that," says Rowland, also co-founder of the Missouri K-8 School Association. "I have found K-8 schools to be the best."

Evolving Strategy

K-8 schools were introduced more than a century ago with the one-room schoolhouse. In society's effort to accommodate students' educational and behavioral needs, reformers began experimenting with different delivery models throughout the 1900s. Consider middle schools, which peaked in popularity in the 1980s. But research indicated there was still a better way to go.

Rowland cites a 1987 national study claiming the optimum student enrollment for any school to operate at peak efficiency is 2,500. So districts began consolidating their schools, enlarging their student population, he says.

"West Virginia is a prime example," says Rowland, adding that Arkansas also followed suit. "Is it working? Heck no. Is it cheaper? Heck no. But some guru out in West Virginia said this is the way it needs to be. Well, it doesn't work."

Now the trend is moving in the opposite direction, partly due to test scores. Rowland says 40 percent of Missouri's 75 K-8 schools recently received "distinction in performance" on a statewide testing program.

Likewise, data also shows that 6-8 graders attending Denver's five K-8 schools are developing stronger math and reading skills than those in its 22 middle schools, says Jerry Wartgow, superintendent of the 74,000-student Denver Public Schools district.

Between 3 percent and 4 percent of Denver's students--roughly 200--leave the district after the fifth or sixth grade, which equates to a district funding loss of nearly $1.2 million. To find out why, Denver formed a Secondary Reform Commission last summer. While the commission's report is due in January, Wartgow suspects it will recommend a different configuration or alternative structure for middle schools, such as K-8.

Many parents, he adds, aren't quite ready to place their fifth-grade children in middle schools. "They feel more comfortable keeping them in their home school where they've always been, where all the teachers know their child and where the child knows all the teachers," Wartgow says. "We're hoping that K-8 will provide a choice for parents, an alternative within the public education system to the middle school."

"Parents like that there's less transition [and that] they have multiple kids in one school." -William Andrekopoulos, superintendent, Milwaukee Public Schools

Milwaukee Public Schools experienced a similar reaction. The 100,000-student district was at risk of losing its state funding for student busing, so it recently asked parents what would persuade them to send their children to the neighborhood school. Their answer was unanimous: transform them into K-8s.

"Parents like that there's less transition, they have multiple kids in one school and the safety and nourishing factor," says William Andrekopoulos, Milwaukee's superintendent. "That's less threatening than sending their child to a large middle school."

The district introduced K-8 schools in the early 1900s, then formed junior high schools in 1939 and middle schools in the early 1980s. Nearly 20 years later, the district now supports eight K-8s. However, that number will jump to 63 by the end of 2005, he says.

"If this trend gives us a higher level of academic success for children who live in poverty, of color, where there used to be an achievement gap, then that's really good news because we haven't been able to do that," he says. "That's going to be the judge as to whether we continue with it or not."

It's not test grades but rather growth and economics that are prompting Deer Valley Unified School District in Phoenix to build more K-8 schools. While the difference in student test scores between K-8s and middle schools has been insignificant for the past four years, K-8s are more economical in handling the district's annual growth rate of 5 percent, says Virginia McElyea, superintendent at Deer Valley, which serves 33,000 students.

Since the district saves several million dollars building a K-8 facility versus a middle school, she says it plans on adding six more K-8s in the next decade, bringing the district total to 16.

"There's an economy of scale here," she says, explaining that K-8s serve more students than middle schools. "Smaller schools cost more to run."

Cold Facts

In Philadelphia, test scores are a big deal. According to the Philadelphia Education Fund, achievement data from 2000 to 2003 revealed that reading and math scores were consistently higher for fifth graders in its 61 K-8 schools than those in its 43 middle schools. K-8 students scored 78 points higher in reading and 80 points higher in math, says Liza Herzog, senior research associate at the Philadelphia research organization.

But K-8s have other advantages. Last year, less than 85 percent of the district's middle school teachers were certified compared to more than 90 percent of K-8 teachers. Teacher retention rates in the 214,000-student district are also higher at K-8s than middle schools. K-8 teachers stay an average of 14.3 years compared to 11.4 years at middle schools.

One of the reasons appears to be smaller class size, according to Fernando Gallard, spokesman for the district. At some middle schools, he says the total number of fifth or sixth graders can reach 300. So as the school district restructures to accommodate more K-8 schools, it is limiting the class size at K-8s to minimize disruptive behavior, enhance learning and help teachers better manage their classrooms.

By 2008, the district plans on creating a total of 133 K-8 schools, Herzog says.

But there may be more at risk than test scores. A recent study by the Rand Corp., which compared the well-being and achievement of middle school age youth in 12 countries, revealed that American students reported more isolation than their counterparts and that their classmates were not kind, helpful and accepting. Worse yet, only 27 percent achieved proficiency in math, 32 percent in science and 33 percent in reading.

Rand's recommendation was for school districts to "consider alternatives to the 6-8 structure to reduce multiple transitions for students and allow schools to better align their goals across grades K-12."

Inherent Problems

Despite its advantages, not everyone agrees with the K-8 model. Since the student population at K-8s is usually higher than at middle schools, problems surrounding student management and discipline are enhanced as well as teacher attrition, says Corinne A. Gregory, president at The PoliteChild, an organization in Palm Desert, Calif., that helps children develop proper etiquette and social skills. According to Gregory, one of every three teachers who leave the profession does so because of discipline issues.

In other cases, she says educators may be ignoring students' social and developmental needs because they're focusing on NCLB.

"First and second graders are very easy targets for eighth graders," she says, explaining that mixing preteens with young children may lead to episodes of bullying and injuries. "You're probably better off keeping the clusters of ages smaller rather than larger."

Other concerns involve administrators. As a former K-8 principal, Curtis Montgomery created and enforced different discipline plans for various age groups. But the most difficult part of his job, he says, was managing the different grade levels and subjects.

"I was trying to spread myself out and be very knowledgeable in nine grade levels," says Montgomery, now principal at Wilder Intermediate School in Piqua, Ohio. "You have to be an expert in a lot of categories."

To avoid this scenario, the Fairview School District No. 72 in Skokie, Ill., promotes co-principals at its K-8 school with 615 students. One focuses on K-4 while the other targets grades 5-8, says Nelson Armour, superintendent at Fairview.

"If you have people who like to be a lone ranger kind of administrator, then co-principals isn't going to work," Armour says.

The district chose this approach because the needs of students in upper and primary grades vary. He says some K-8s mistakenly adopt the attitude of one-size-fits-all.

But Nancy Ames doesn't advocate any school model. As vice president of the Education Development Center, a research and development organization in Newton, Mass., she says schools must concentrate on becoming academically vigorous and responsive to students.

Since elementary and middle school students are growing mentally and are active learners, she says instead of spending millions of dollars to transform schools, administrators must focus on effective teaching strategies.

"It's not about the grade span but what goes on in the classroom," she says. "You should look at what's going on inside the school and try to make it better, whichever grade configuration you have."

Carol Patton is a freelance writer based in Las Vegas.