HAZEL GREEN— Safety concerns, instructional time loss, and the opportunity to provide more course options for students in grade 7-12 have led to discussions about students walking between the elementary and high school buildings for classes at Southwestern Schools. Administrators, along with a school improvements committee, are looking at options to eliminate student travel between buildings during school hours.
Junior high students currently walk along the driveway between the two buildings for algebra, physical education, art, computers and some elective courses, sometimes making the trip several times a day.
“Even if it’s one time a day, it is one time too many to have them out of the buildings,” district administrator John Costello said. “We lock our buildings down and then require our students to walk back and forth outside without a sidewalk during the school day. We have to buzz everybody into our buildings, yet we allow students to walk between buildings. It seems counter-productive for our safety measures.”
Costello said parents have openly expressed their concerns for the students walking back and forth between the buildings, especially in varying weather conditions. The school improvement committee has formed two options to eliminate the two-building classroom issue for students. First, the seventh and eighth graders would be moved to the high school building with classes in a somewhat self-contained area of the building, except electives. Second, the junior high students would remain in the elementary/middle school building for all classes, requiring elective teachers to do the traveling. The second option would reduce the number of electives available to seventh and eighth grade students because the tech ed classes require the use of certain equipment that is only available in the high school.
No matter which option is chosen, Costello said students walking between the buildings for classes will stop.
Costello said moving the junior high students to the high school would provide more course offerings for the students in grades 7-12, by utilizing staff more efficiently. Junior high students may have the opportunity to take high school courses for credits, which is currently allowable under state law. This will also create the need for additional courses, such as AP and elective courses, for students to take when students have exhausted all of the pre-requisite curriculum.
With the first option, students would also have more classroom time without the extra few minutes spent traveling between the buildings. It would also allow students a broader option of courses to take based on their interests and ability levels.
Gym space and scheduling are two of the biggest concerns with the second option. Keeping the junior high students in the elementary/middle school building would hinder the elementary class use of the gymnasium as the junior high students currently have physical education classes in the high school.
“If we are going to stay here [the second option], we will have to look at what changes we will make with Ag, tech ed and how those classes will be taught in the building,” Costello said. “We’ll have to figure out what we will do with our physical education, because I don’t believe in moving them back and forth from buildings. I think a lot of parents would support that as well.”
Elementary principal Jennifer Gallagher said the biggest push was to accommodate each student and best meet their individual needs.
“We want to make sure we’re creating more opportunities for our school district to grow,” Costello said. “We want more opportunities for our students to be college- and career-ready. Academic and career planning (ACP) is being required by the state, not next year but the year after, which is putting each one of those kids on a career path sixth grade through 12th grade. In certain courses, this allows us to do that a little bit more for the seventh and eighth grade students on those paths.”
Junior high students have the opportunity to take high school credit, now and in the future. The move to the high school would make those opportunities easier to schedule and facilitate.
Costello said the seventh and eighth grade classrooms in the high school building would be in a designated area with less high school traffic. The junior high students would have their own designated bathroom.
“There’s a big debate about mixing middle school kids with high school kids. It’s been going on for years,” Costello said. “As a district, we have an all-school musical and the elementary and high school kids are intertwined during the musical practices.”
Costello said the junior high students currently use the high school for approximately half the day, meaning each grade for two or three hours, and there have been very few issues. The older students are already used to having the junior high students in the building.
Costello said he has already heard some concerns about the proposed changes.
The junior high students have been surveyed about the proposed changes. High school students were also asked what could be done to make their experiences as high school students better, but not specifically about the junior high students possibly moving to the high school building.
“The [junior high] results were scattered all over,” High school principal Cynthia Lacey said. “Some said they didn’t really like walking back and forth so it would be really nice. Some of them commented on the food, which wouldn’t change no matter which building you were in. I would say they were fairly split, half and half, on whether they wanted to [move to the high school] or not.”
The school administrators are working on a survey to solicit parent feedback on the topic. They will also organize community meetings in the future to hear and address any concerns from the public.
Costello said he doesn’t have all of the answers at this time, but he is trying to work through all of the questions, concerns, issues and problems as they come up.
“We’re just trying to look for ways to move our district forward and provide better opportunities for our kids to help prepare them for the future,” Costello said. “We have to meet the needs of all of our students. It can be difficult with a small school when we share staff; it can be difficult to have a schedule that is conducive to all of our students.”
Costello said the cost to make the change would be minimal, possibly adding some walls for the first option and purchasing lockers. He said the goal is to maintain the current staff; there would be no teachers cut to make the change.
Lacey would pick up the duties associated with the addition of the seventh and eighth graders and Gallagher, who doubles as the district-wide special education director, would be able to redirect some of her energy toward the special needs students district-wide.
“It would balance the number of students in each building,” Costello said.
The high school building currently has 170 students and the elementary/middle school building has 380 students. At the elementary/middle school, there is a current teacher to students ratio of 1:20 or 1:25. The high school has a 1:15 ratio.
Southwestern Junior High Options
Option 1 (move to high school)
- Better physical education set-up
- More options for high school credit at junior high level
- Create AP courses; more staff availability to do this and students will be able to fulfill pre-requisites in order to take AP courses
- Better use of staff
- More opportunities to take courses based on interests
- Could run a true middle school concept with the fifth and sixth grades
- More flexibility in scheduling
- Smaller teacher to student ratios
- Easier 7-12 athletic and music activity scheduling
- Mixing of junior high and high school students in classrooms and common areas
- Bathrooms would have to be designated for either high school or junior high student use, not both
- Middle school staff would be broken up
- Easier to schedule junior high athletic games and practices at the second gymnasium
- Sixth grade band would not rehearse with the seventh and eighth grade bands.
Option 2 (stay at elementary/middle school)
- Middle school staff united
- Changes won’t be needed to the high school building
- Sixth, seventh and eighth grade bands would rehearse together
- Athletic event gym space is easier to secure for games and practices
- Fewer elective courses offered
- Elective course teachers have to travel to the elementary/middle school to teach
- Smaller gym space shared with more classes
- Scheduling would correspond with the high school classes