Monday, Dec. 31, 2007 | Cian Lavin knew Ulysses S. Grant School. He liked it. With middle school looming, he didn’t want to leave.

“I thought it might be a little bit scary,” Lavin said.

His classmate Ildeany Lopez had had enough change in her life. In fifth grade, she moved from Guatemala to San Diego, and plunged into a new culture at Grant. Her peers were friendly, she said, but switching schools made her nervous.

So when 6th grade rolled around, both Ildeany and Cian were happy to stay put alongside roughly 70 other 6th-graders, part of Grant’s first-ever middle school.

Grant is one of eight San Diego Unified elementary schools converting into a K-8 school. It’s a new tack for the school district. K-8s, once standard in U.S. public schools, are now rare in cities save for private schools. In San Diego, they’re providing an alternative to the big middle schools some parents dislike — and reeling in kids who once opted for private middle schools or charters.

Advocates say K-8 schools foster tighter communities and allow schools to track students over time. Students stay connected to their teachers, and parents stay involved at the schools. But experts say reshuffling grades has little impact on student scores, and bears a significant cost. Creating K-8s is pricey, and the smaller schools strain to provide the same electives as conventional middle schools.

“The question I always ask is, why are you doing it?” said Al Summers, director of conferences and events for the National Middle School Association. “If you address their needs, it can be done effectively. But you can’t just treat them like big elementary school kids.”

High-achieving Grant feeds into Roosevelt Middle School, which ranks in the lowest 20th percent of California schools by test scores. For six years, Roosevelt has failed to meet federal No Child Left Behind standards, tarring it with the dreaded “Program Improvement” label.

“We were losing them,” said Bruce McGirr, principal of Grant School. His “clientele” include affluent, savvy scientists who populate the Craftsman-style homes in Mission Hills, parents with money and options. “They’d take off. They looked down the road and saw middle school options they didn’t feel comfortable with.”

South of Interstate 8, parents were also taking off — for charter schools or middle schools elsewhere in the district. Some had no choice. In southeast San Diego, every public middle school that feeds into Lincoln High School has converted into a charter school. Such schools receive public funds, but don’t follow the same rules as ordinary public schools. If parents don’t opt for charters, said school board member Shelia Jackson, their kids board buses for public middle schools far from home. Parents have pushed for a regular public school in the neighborhood.

Knox, a former elementary in southeast San Diego, is morphing into an “elemiddle” to meet their demands, Jackson said. So are Audubon, Bethune and Fulton, which would otherwise spill into Bell Middle School. Golden Hill, Logan and Perkins, former feeders for Roosevelt, converted as well.

Parents Wary of Big Middle Schools

K-8s are a shift from the conventional logic of public schools. Such schools were standard until the 1950s, when educators reorganized schools into elementaries, junior highs and high schools. Junior highs, spanning 7th and 8th grade, were meant to acclimate students to high school. Three decades later, schools traded junior highs for middle schools that usually included 6th grade, advocating a third kind of instruction tailored to adolescents’ needs.

“It’s a very unique period of development,” said Summers. Young adolescents start to think abstractly, he said. Lectures bore them; working in groups is appealing.

By 2005, public middle schools outnumbered K-8s more than 2 to 1 nationwide, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Yet middle schools have lost some favor. Scores sink at middle school, fights multiply, and parents tend to drift from schools. Scholars differ over what the numbers mean. Recently, Fordham Institute researchers noted that states often set the bar for test scores much higher at middle school, artificially deflating middle school scores.

Experts doubt that reshuffling grades alone can boost students’ scores. K-8s aren’t “a slam dunk,” cautioned Douglas Mac Irver, a Johns Hopkins University researcher who compared student test scores before and after Philadelphia reshuffled its public schools on the K-8 model. An earlier study, published in 2005 in the Middle School Journal, was also lukewarm about K-8’s impact.

But the stigma around big middle schools hasn’t vanished, prompting some school districts to offer K-8s as another option for nervous parents. Outgoing San Diego Unified Superintendent Carl Cohn knew K-8s well from Long Beach, his former district. Schools in Philadelphia, Cincinatti and Everett, Massachusetts have cut out middle school entirely, keeping 6th, 7th and 8th graders in the same schools that nurtured them from kindergarten.

Elsewhere in San Diego County, K-8s are the norm. In Santee, principal Stephanie Pierce strides across the campus of Chet F. Harritt School. Her school is K-8, and always has been — just like all elementaries in her district.

“I do think the K-8 structure has an impact,” Pierce said. Staff grow closer to their students over the years, she said, and each middle-school teacher has fewer students to track. “You don’t get to hide. There’s no hiding from any of us!”

Elective Classes Less Plentiful in K-8s

Retooling elementary schools to suit middle-schoolers isn’t cheap. San Diego Unified expects to spend more than $8 million in state money over three years to upgrade seven of the schools, adding middle-school science labs, locker rooms, and new restrooms with adult-height fixtures. Under California’s education code, such upgrades are required. McGirr wants his middle-schoolers to have “a real middle school experience,” complete with gym uniforms, DJed dances, and their own lunchroom.

Crossing to the middle-schoolers’ side of Grant’s campus, “it feels like you’re stepping over an invisible line,” said Alexander Davis Permann, a Grant sixth-grader. He transferred to Grant from Euclid Elementary, choosing it over the Creative, Performing and Media Arts magnet. “But it’s still the same school.”

Still, Grant is funded just like an elementary school, said McGirr — with fewer dollars per student than a typical middle school. It fields a part-time nurse and a part-time counselor, and pays out of its individual school budget for both. The big-ticket items other middle schools enjoy — a gym, a swimming pool — aren’t likely to grace Grant’s campus.

Electives are also scarcer. With fewer teachers than a typical middle school, K-8s have more difficulty offering extra classes. Grant still offers some unusual courses, such as marine science — but the classes depend on hiring versatile teachers, McGirr said. In Santee, Chet F. Harritt School offers art and music, but only provides dance and drama after school. Spanish is available, thanks to a Grossmont High teacher who splits her time.

“If kids don’t get exposed to shop class, music, the fine arts (during middle school) they’re not ever going to get interested,” Summers said. “Most K-8s can’t provide the same offerings, because of their size.”

Teacher credentials are another headache. No Child Left Behind tightened rules governing teachers’ qualifications, and middle school teachers must be qualified in the specific subjects they teach. Elementary school teachers, however, need a more general multi-subject credential. To teach in a K-8, upper-grade teachers need both. That makes hiring K-8 teachers tougher, McGirr said, especially amid a shortage of skilled, credentialed middle school teachers.

Safety Not An Issue, But Costs and Supplies Are

Before enrolling her kindergartener at San Diego Cooperative Charter School, a K-8 located in Linda Vista, Celestina Cozic fretted. Mulling a K-8, some parents worry the bigger kids will beat up the youngsters. Such fights erupted this year at new K-8s in Pittsburgh. Unlike what happened in San Diego, the change was made abruptly, moving kids who’d already studied in comprehensive middle schools instead of adding one grade at a time. K-8s in Santee and San Diego, both public and private, say those problems haven’t cropped up here.

“At first, it seemed a little frightening — all these older kids, you’d think they’d bully the younger ones,” Cozic said. “But they don’t. They’re role models.”

“The kids look up to me,” said Trey Adams, a lanky 8th grader who regularly reads to the younger kids at San Diego Cooperative Charter School. “When I go up there, I have to act a lot more mature.”

Not every school has leapt at the opportunity to go K-8. A number of elementary schools opted against it. At Emerson-Bandini Elementary in Logan Heights, parents rejected the idea. In Santee, superintendent Lizbeth Johnson said, “Some parents still say, ‘I want my kid to go a middle school, because I want him to grow up.”

Other schools were discouraged by the price. Nor have the transitions been seamless. At Grant, McGirr scrounged for desks at the school district warehouse, borrowed computers, and is still waiting for builders to polish off the science lab, now an empty room with spigots sticking out of the walls.

“I’m teaching science in a room that doesn’t have safety equipment,” said Olivia Allison, who teaches general science and marine science and advises student government. “Can I teach around it? Yes. But do I want to? No.”

Yet McGirr is still sold on the K-8 model — borrowed desks and all. Ultimately, he believes the switch will help the bottom line, by bringing kids back into public schools. Beyond the budget, he sees K-8 as one route to vibrant, family-friendly schools.

“I always hated to lose kids after fifth grade,” McGirr said. “That’s when they become really exciting.”

Please contact Emily Alpert directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.

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