Why more Palm Beach County schools are converting to K-8

Hidden Oaks Elementary opened in suburban Boynton Beach 12 years ago as a remedy to crowding at six nearby schools, but in the past five years, it has struggled to fill even two-thirds of its seats.

One of its biggest siphons has been charter schools, including one just a five-minute walk away. Several of those charters offered something Palm Beach County parents can’t typically find in traditional public schools: a campus that welcomes students from kindergarten through grade 8.

Principal Sari Myers has been itching to fight back. In August, she got her wish and Hidden Oaks welcomed its first ever sixth-graders – more than 70 in all.

The school is walking the path to becoming the district’s first neighborhood K-8 school, adding one grade per year for the next three. District administrators say other K-8 campuses will follow.

“This is the model we want to go to,” Deputy Superintendent David Christiansen said as he toured Hidden Oaks on the first day of school.

While still the national norm, the luster has been falling off the middle school approach to learning since the 1990s, educators say. More than 20 of the nation’s largest urban districts, including Miami-Dade County, have sought an alternative in the K-8 model.

In Palm Beach County, home to 33 middle and 109 elementary schools, leaders have dabbled in alternative grade groupings.

The Village Academy in Delray Beach hosts kindergarten to grade 12. The Conservatory School in North Palm Beach is a K-8 school. Both are schools of choice, not schools that serve a designated neighborhood, but their success is clearing the path for Hidden Oaks and others.

“In 2010, we had under 400 kids and I couldn’t get the kid across the street to come to school here,” recalled Conservatory Principal Teresa Stoupas. Parents wanted K-8, she said, but convincing district administrators at the time was an uphill battle. Now the school is home to more than 750 students and parents love it.

“I have teachers who travel from Wellington to be here and parents who want to drop off their resumes after they tour,” said Stoupas, who gives equal credit to the music school’s uncommon approach to curriculum and its K-8 configuration for its success.

To make her argument, Stoupas said she relied heavily on research about the effectiveness of K-8 programs.

The argument begins by understanding how we came to have middle schools.

In the early 1900s, it was junior high

The nation’s first junior highs appeared in 1909 breaking the kids in grades 7, 8 and 9 away from the earlier grades. But that configuration had its challenges, particularly for the oldest in the grouping, and by sometime in the mid-1960s, the middle school concept of housing grades 6, 7 and 8 together was born.

The middle school day differs in many ways from the elementary one. Students commonly study six subjects in different rooms with different teachers, a change from having one or two main teachers and rotating through activities from art to computer labs in elementary.

What is taught is largely dictated by state standards with high school preparation a priority. But the middle school concept was also supposed to be about catering to a certain developmental age, helping students navigate the transition from older childhood to young adulthood.

But talk to parents and, for many, middle school is a scary proposition – where the cocoon of elementary is swiftly ripped away.

Parents, whose children were zoned for Hidden Oaks Elementary and would move on to middle schools including Tradewinds, Christa McAuliffe and Congress or alternately stay at nearby K-8 charters, had been asking for K-8 alternative for a few years, Principal Myers said.

“I think there’s a feeling of security that staying here gives,” Myers sad.

Is K-8 really better?

The research to say one model is better than the other when it comes to educating young teens is both vast in its praise of K-8 and yet inconclusive when it comes to proving that it was really the grouping of the grades that delivered the goods.

Studies in Milwaukee, Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York and Miami have shown that in K-8 settings, the sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders:

  • Do better than middle schoolers on standardized tests.
  • Have fewer discipline issues and experience less bullying.

Their families:

  • Stay active in their children’s school longer.
  • Welcome the relief that comes from having older and younger siblings at one school – same drop off and pick up times, same parent nights, etc.

The schools report:

  • It is easier to hire teachers.
  • The staff and teachers get to know the students better when the children remain in the same buildings for nine years.

But a review of the research conducted by one of the nation’s educational laboratories hit on the often-noted problem with many of these studies: They “did not control for school size, socioeconomic factors, and other variables, so results could be attributed to reasons other than grade configurations.”

The Philadelphia study, for example, rooted out such a catch. The number of students in a given grade may be more important than the grouping of the grades.

What advantages come from being in a K-8 diminish when the number of students in a grade approach the numbers of that same grade in a middle school, the Philadelphia authors reported.

Regardless of research, in Palm Beach County parents have been voting with their feet, heading to schools such as Franklin Academy, Imagine Chancellor and Renaissance Central Palm charter schools for a K-8 alternative, Superintendent Robert Avossa has said.

Lisa Butler had her two oldest children in a K-8 charter until nearby North Palm Beach Elementary was made over into The Conservatory and invited sixth-graders to audition. Now her children are in grades 1, 5 and 8 there.

“We always loved the idea of attending a neighborhood school, being able to walk there. The music program was probably the No. 1 reason we came,” Butler said.

She also likes the convenience of having all three children in one place, the way the school approaches the curriculum using community projects and the fact that the grades are small.

While most middle schools pack 1,200 to 1,500 students, the Conservatory is home to 150 in grades 6-8, though the aim is to grow to 200 next year.

The district took note and Hidden Oaks is selling more than just a K-8 configuration.

It is pitching an expanded STEAM – Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math – program. It also opened a full-time center for gifted students.

The school opened with 750 students, up from 714 a year before. The school attracted 73 sixth graders, about 30 of whom attended attended elementary there, others who decided to try this alternative to the middle schools they were assigned to. Several brought their K-5 siblings with them, Myers said.

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