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Spokane Schools Consider Grade Reconfiguration

Web only: Here's more of Doug Nadvornick's interview with Spokane School District Associate Superintendent Mark Anderson.

So here’s the context for this first story. It’s about the Spokane School District and its quest to make sure that its schools are good places for kids to learn.

“We have a long-range bond plan in the school district that we started back in 2003,” said Associate Superintendent Mark Anderson.

“And the plan, at the time, was simply to replace Spokane’s old schools or modernize. We had plenty of them at the time," he said. "Also to keep our schools well maintained until it was their turn to get renovated. And it funded technology and funded safety and security. And the original plan was, every six years we would do a set of projects and then we would say, ‘who’s next?’”

And that seemed to work well. The district proposed projects and, every six years, asked voters for money to do them and the voters said yes and new schools were built and old ones renovated. But, as so often happens in life, there were complications.

“The plan was not built around the school district growing and the plan wasn’t built around, we didn’t know at the time, that the state legislation would define basic education as having kindergarten-through-third-grade classes small, about 17 students per teacher," Anderson said. "And those two factors alone mean that we have to have about four or five new elementary schools or at least three more middle schools.”

That, of course, would mean a significant public investment.

So that brings us to the current situation. The district is planning for its next bond issue in 2021 and trying to decide which way to go. That means figuring out the best way to get to the state’s mandated class size ratio for the early grades.

The district created a committee of parents, staff and community members to identify options for reconfiguring the district’s schools. That committee decided on three.

Mark Anderson: “One of the options we’re looking at is changing from our current kindergarten-through-sixth-grade elementary school configuration, seventh and eighth grade middle school and nine-through-12 high school. We’ve had this particular configuration since the seventies. So Spokane is used to this current configuration. So we’re studying the pros and cons because things have changed over time.”

Anderson says this configuration is not the norm among school districts in the state. About one in six middle schools have seventh and eighth graders only. The most prevalent model is the second option presented by the configuration committee.

Mark Anderson: “Another one that we’re studying is kindergarten-through-fifth-grade with six-seven-eight middle schools and what are the pros and cons of that configuration.”
He says about 70% of the districts in Washington use that model.

“How does the day work for sixth graders? Are they isolated from seventh and eighth graders? Or are they part of their day with sixth graders and then they go out for electives and so forth?" Anderson said.

"And then the other one we’ve been looking at is kindergarten-through-eighth-grade and nine-through-12 high school. We actually have one K-eight here in Spokane, Spokane Public Montessori and now we’re looking at what are the pros and cons of that configuration as well,” he said.

The district’s committee is holding a series of public forums this month to present the options. We went to a meeting Tuesday evening at Garry Middle School.

“So my name is Adam Swinyard and I am the chief academic officer for the district.”

Adam Swinyard presented the options to a small group of parents in the school’s cafeteria. And then he sent them off into small groups to talk with district administrators.   

At one table were three or four parents who have children in Mullan Road School on the South Hill. One mother said that school is running out of space. She suggested it might be a good idea to move the sixth graders up to middle school to alleviate that problem. But another worried that many sixth graders aren’t ready to be exposed to the temptations of dating and drugs and other things that seventh and eighth graders talk about in middle schools.

Afterward we talked with two of the women from that table.

Ashley Evola teaches some of those sixth graders at Grant Elementary on the South Hill. She prefers moving them to middle school.

“Not only from the curriculum perspective where we are already in middle school curriculum and so, as a teacher, it’s hard to collaborate with the rest of my school, besides my grade level partner, because we don’t have that resource,” she said.

And from the social perspective…

“They’re ready to go to middle school, especially this time of year when we’re getting to the end of sixth grade," Evola said. "I start to see more and more that they would be really successful, not only emotionally, but I think they would skyrocket in academics, having those options, those electives, all the STEM opportunities that they’re going to get in middle school. I think having those a grade lower in sixth grade would be amazing for them.”

With another view is Trudie Nesbitt, who prefers the kindergarten-through-eighth-grade model.

“For one thing, you have the older kids who can help the younger kids, who can be role models for the younger kids," Nesbitt said. "The older kids aren’t being forced to grow up so quickly. They’re still with younger kids. They can have a little bit of a childhood. They’re not being pushed into that whole dances and whatever in eighth grade that they get in junior high. That’s my favorite, but that is everyone else’s least favorite.”

Some of the talk at Garry focused on the question of which is the best financial option. Is it a better investment to build new middle schools or new elementary schools? So we asked Associate Superintendent Mark Anderson.

“From just a pure cost standpoint, it would probably be more economical to build three more middle schools, so a six-seven-eight configuration, than the current K-six, where we’d have to build probably five more elementary schools," Anderson said.

"Either way we go, no matter what we do, school boundaries are going to have to change. That’s always a sensitive topic because folks get used to their neighborhood school. There would be less boundary changes in moving sixth graders up than building five new elementary schools, where you’d pretty much have to change all the boundaries for elementary schools in the district,” he said.

But the question of how to rejigger school boundaries will wait until next year. The grade configuration committee has three more public forums, including one tonight -- Thursday -- at seven at Chase Middle School, with two more meetings next week, Tuesday at Salk, Thursday at Shaw. Then it will make a recommendation to the school board, which is due to choose one of the three options later this spring.

By the way, we have more of our discussion with Mark Anderson on the Spokane Public Radio website. We talk about potential sites for new schools, the search for land and more about how you can be involved in the public process. Go to the Inland Journal page on our website to hear more of this.