The Pitt County School Board met in a workshop meeting Monday night to receive information presented by local experts and upper administration on various configurations for middle grades, focusing on K-8 and 6-8 schools.
What little research has been done specifically on K-8 versus K-5 and 6-8 configurations does not conclusively support one format over the other, according to guest speaker Dr. Mark L’Esperance, an Associate Professor in the department of Curriculum and Instruction at East Carolina University. L’Esperance is also the Middle Grades Education Area Coordinator, and holds his PhD in Curriculum and Teaching from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.
Several important factors also affect achievement separate from grade configuration, including equity and quality of extra-curricular programming, ease of grade transition, teacher positions and availability, and consistency throughout the district, which were intently discussed. L’Esperance began, “My purpose tonight is to briefly share some research findings regarding K-8 and 6-8 grade configurations with the board. I come here tonight not as an advocate for one configuration or another, but as an advocate for middle level students in grades six through eight.”
“The Pitt County middle level student population is very unique and diverse and covers a wide range of race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic background, and those are important variables to keep in mind,” L’Esperance said.
“Current research is not definitive. There’s just not a lot of research out there regarding K-8 and 6-8 configurations. While the configuration of grade levels may affect a students’ success, little empirical research has been conducted in order to verify or refute this contextual factor,” he said.
There are no national evidence-based studies addressing grade span configuration, L’Esperance said, adding that because Pitt County is so unique, it is very hard to generalize any studies or compare them to the local situation.
One study L’Esperance noted found that there were no discernible differences between K-8 schools and middle schools in terms of academic achievement.
Another study found that a larger school size did have a detrimental effect on student achievement.
Not all studies address all factors, L’Esperance pointed out, so caution should be used in interpreting the findings of any study. Variables not always taken into account, like transient populations or different socioeconomic status populations, can make studies hard to compare. L’Esperance said throughout the discussion that consistency and continuity of programming were important factors in student achievement as well.
The workshop was one of many discussing the changes involved in the Long Range Facility Plan, a major current expansion project for the schools, released January 12.
The first phase of the plan affects three of the district’s six K-8 schools. Grifton School is slated to become a K-5 facility with grades 6-8 moving to an expanded Ayden Middle School. Chicod would also go from K-8 to K-5. Finally, G.R. Whitfield would become a middle school housing grades 6-8. The other three schools will be affected in the second phase of the plan.
The first phase of the plan is not yet officially approved and could change; a final decision is expected in March 2009. (The second phase has not yet been fully developed and released).
One of the guiding principles listed in the plan states that the district is trying to achieve a consistent configuration of grade levels based on K-5 elementary schools, 6-8 middle schools, and 9-12 high schools, as well as relieve schools that are over capacity and provide room for future growth.
Superintendent of Pitt County Schools Dr. Beverly Reep said the goal of the board with this plan was to settle down all the recent movement of students and provide consistency and stability for them, and first and foremost deliver quality education for the children while still allowing capacity for growth and using resources efficiently. She said it would be nice if they could start fresh and build an ideal district where everything was easy and close, “but the reality is we are here where we are with our history and we have challenges and complexities before us in terms of trying to achieve that ideal.” She added that the teachers and staff have been doing a tremendous job no matter what configuration they were in.
In the discussion, Reep also pointed out that whatever decision was made with the K-8 schools involved in the first phase would affect the second phase, and that they should be kept consistent.
Board members had an opportunity to ask questions of L’Esperance after his presentation.
Mary Williams asked about looking into drop out rates, and Jill Camnitz asked if test scores for kids coming from each type of configuration could be examined. Reep said administrators would be working on those numbers.
Benjie Forrest said he had seen studies finding that several transitions have a negative effect on students and that achievement tends to decrease with more transitions. L’Esperance said that transient populations were a variable often unaccounted for that could have affected those studies.
Forrest also asked why the plan would “tear apart” schools that met AYP, like Chicod.
Reep said, “Now let’s be fair when we talk about AYP. Not all schools have all subgroups.”Michael Dixon asked honestly for L’Esperance’s own thoughts on the matter. L’Esperance could not say one way or another, but he did say the most important factor was equity of programs and that there were a lot of things going on and that, “I’m not sure to what extent, if any, you can say there is equity across the board in this county.”
In addition to L’Esperance’s presentation, the board also heard findings from other administrators in their middle grades observations, including Superintendent of Human Resources Delilah Harris, Associate Superintendent of Pitt County Schools Aaron Beaulieu, Director of Student Services Travis Lewis, and Senior Financial Officer Michael Cowin.