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Schools regroup for success

Grade reconfiguration solves budgetary woes and enhances academics
Forced to make grade reconfigurations, Island Trees School District in New York created Michael Stokes Elementary School, for grades 2 through 4, above, out of a K4 elementary school building to save money and to use staff more efficiently.
Forced to make grade reconfigurations, Island Trees School District in New York created Michael Stokes Elementary School, for grades 2 through 4, above, out of a K4 elementary school building to save money and to use staff more efficiently.

In the name of saving money, K12 administrators are also discovering that reconfiguring grade levels offers unique education advantages.

School leaders nationwide are exploring innovative group-level groupings and thinking beyond the typical K5 elementary school, grades 6 through 8 middle school and grades 9 through 12 high school model to figure out how to continue to deliver appropriate education with fewer funds.

And while most administrators will tell you the driving factor behind grade reconfiguration is money, school leaders are learning that grade regrouping can have significant academic and community benefits as well.

Here’s a look at how three very different districts reconfigured grades to balance budgetary pressures, community expectations and academic achievement.

The Princeton plan

Island Trees School District in New York, like many other districts, was hit hard by the Great Recession of 2008. Changes had to be made when the state legislature drastically decreased school aid, says Charles Murphy, superintendent of the school system on Long Island.

Island Trees turned a pair of K4 elementary schools into a K1 building and a school for grades 2 through 4. “[We decided] to use the efficiencies and economies of scale to save money,” Murphy says.

Grouping students into schools by grade levels rather than by neighborhoods is known as the Princeton Plan, so-called because the city of Princeton, New Jersey, experimented with grade-level grouping over half a century ago in an effort to increase diversity. The concept is sometimes contentious because it often requires students to be bussed out of their neighborhood.

That wasn’t an issue for Island Trees, however. The district’s two elementary schools were already located on the same campus, only about 100 yards apart. The district placed grades 2 through 4 in the larger building and K1 students attend the smaller school.

The move has saved the district nearly $500,000 per year during its five years of implementation, largely because staff can be used more efficiently. “We were able to level off class size, which allowed us to eliminate some teaching positions and remedial classes” that had been duplicated, Murphy says. And that, he says, has likely benefitted students academically.

“When we instituted the Princeton plan, it wasn’t about education, but it certainly didn’t do any detriment to it,” Murphy says. “In fact, if we hadn’t done this, things likely would have been worse, educationally speaking, because to achieve the cost savings that we needed to stay in the black, we would have had to raise class sizes in both buildings.”

The switch to grade-level schools has increased professional cooperation as well. “Staff really like it because they get to plan and pool resources together,” Murphy says.

Other administrators should tread carefully if implementing the Princeton Plan will involve bussing students out of their home neighborhood, Murphy adds. “You want to make sure that you’re not breaking up your community and causing a fracture,” he says. “It may not be worth the savings.”

Freshman-only campus

In 2013, Snoqualmie Valley School District in Washington opened a freshmen-only campus to relieve overcrowding at Mount Si High School.

The school district has been under strain in recent years. Its population ballooned 14 percent in 2005 and 2006, fueled largely by an influx of families attracted to the area’s scenery and proximity to technology hubs in Seattle, Bellevue and Redmond. It continues to grow at about 3 percent per year.

And while a 2005 district task force recommended building a new elementary school and high school, voters defeated multiple bond referendums. Desperate district administrators then asked voters for $30 million to purchase modular classrooms and address some maintenance issues. That bond passed, and the modular classrooms relieved some of the overcrowding at the high school.

The classrooms, though, did not change the fact that the 1950s-era high school had a “cobbled-together appearance, atrocious traffic flow and was not education-friendly,” Superintendent Joel Aune says.

Because overcrowding was not as severe at the middle school level, district administrators decided to convert a nearby middle school into a freshman-only campus. The middle school’s students were divided among the district’s other two middle schools.

“But we weren’t going to simply move 500 freshman and 25 teachers across the street and basically do things the same way we had always done them,” Aune says. “We took advantage of the opportunity to shift the way instruction is delivered. We wanted to make it much more personal and student-centered, so we invested heavily in tech and have created small learning communities, where smaller groups of teachers and students work together collaboratively.”

The former middle school has a “unique design that was a wonderful fit for what we’re trying to do philosophically with the freshmen,” Aune says. The building required only $3 million of renovation, and the district had money set aside for infrastructure improvements.

The program has proven so popular with students, parents, educators and community members that the district’s new high school will include a freshman-only building.

Keep students together

Voters of Sunnyside School District in Arizona voted down referendums that would have supported maintenance and operations, yet approved a $12 million, citizen-suggested referendum to build a new K8 fine arts school. That put district administrators in an interesting position. They needed to find cost savings to continue educating the district’s approximately 17,000 students—while honoring the community’s desire for a school of the fine arts.

To save money, administrators in 2014 shuttered a K5 elementary school permanently and closed a middle school temporarily. The middle school building was eventually renovated into a fine arts middle school serving grades 4 through 8, because the $12 million allotted for a new school was not enough to erect a brand new facility.

That move also allowed leadership to reboot a school that had been struggling.The middle school that was closed and renovated “had been facing some academic problems,” says Javier Baca, Sunnyside’s executive director of information technologies and a member of the leadership team.

The district expanded their K5 elementary schools to K6, essentially allowing many students to stay in place. To accommodate students from the closed elementary, Sunnyside added grades 2 through 5 to a middle school serving grades 6 through 8.

A K6 magnet program located near the new fine arts building became a K3 fine arts school; most of the magnet’s older students transferred to the new fine arts middle school. And most students from the closed middle school transferred together to another district middle school.

It was a very conscious and deliberate decision by district administrators, Baca says. Together, they developed a set of principles to guide student redistribution. First, if a family already had one child attending a certain school, the other siblings could attend as well. Second, the district moved cohorts of students together, rather than dispersing individuals to schools with extra capacity.

School boundaries were re-drawn as necessary to evenly disperse students by demographics. For instance, the number of English language learners and students with special needs stayed relatively constant from school to school.

Reconfiguring schools and grades has ultimately saved the district millions of dollars, largely because operational costs have decreased. And students and families, for the most part, are satisfied with their new schools, Baca says. The win-win outcome required careful attention to more than just the bottom line—any decision on grade reconfiguration requires compassion, communication and consideration of student and community needs.

“Our primary job is to make sure our students are successful,” Baca says. “Breaking up a school or reconfiguring grades can obviously be a disruption of their academic experience, so think about how you can mitigate that.

Transparency leads to smoother transitions

Sunnyside USD mounted an extensive communications effort to inform parents, students and staff about pending school closures and grade reconfiguration.

“We wanted to make sure that people had information before they were allowed to speculate as to what was going to happen,” says Baca, the executive director of information technologies.

Sunnyside’s approach included:

  • Face-to-face meetings. District officials held informational meetings, grade-level assemblies with students and open houses at each affected school. “We tried to think of all the what ifs, the things parents were going to be concerned about, like buses, food service, sports and gifted programs. We addressed those, then left it wide open for questions,” says Pam Betten, executive director of curriculum and instruction.
  • Human resource assistance. Because reconfiguration resulted in the loss of some staff jobs, district administrators worked closely with HR to answer staff questions regarding insurance coverage and employment opportunities.

Jennifer Fink is a freelance writer in Wisconsin.