Sunday, July 03, 2005

Ninth Grade Is To Freshman As Fifth Grade Is To?

The Portsmouth, Herald has come out strongly against a recommendation made to New Hampshire's Newmarket school board to close its middle school and construct a new campus that would include grades 5 through 12:

Newmarket parents should act now to educate themselves about the proposal for a combined middle/senior high school that would house grades 5 through 12. The plan, driven more by dollars than sense, could be set in motion by next spring.

Chris Bauer, chairman of the school district’s facilities committee, said this past week that the group had reviewed all options and "considered the pluses and minuses."

"We feel that this is the best long-term solution," he said of the plan to build a school for eight grades.

The pluses outlined by the committee included shared amenities such as an auditorium, gymnasium, computer labs and a media center. Another option would include a shared industrial-arts room and life-skills room.

A combined middle/senior high school is the cheaper option, but it is not the best option. A building that houses grades 5 through 12 together is not a combined middle/senior high school. Fifth-graders belong in elementary school, and the same argument can be made for sixth-graders.

School Board Chairman Jonathan Sheff said the proposal is "almost like building two schools in one." That is naive if not irresponsible. A wall will not properly separate students.

Our children grow up faster today than ever before. We do not need to add to this by providing an educational environment where 11-year-olds are exposed to the fashion trends and behavioral patterns of 18-year-olds. Grouping children with teen-agers will have immediate impact on how they dress and how they act.

The members of the facilities committee toured several middle/high schools in New Hampshire, but none in the Seacoast area. The towns of York, South Berwick, Eliot and Kittery in Maine, and Portsmouth, Dover, Durham, Hampton and Exeter do not have combined middle/senior high schools - for a reason. These schools do not best serve children, particularly inasmuch as our schools play an increasing role in their social and emotional development.

Proponents of combined schools argue in terms of financial value, as evidenced in Sheff’s remarks: "They get to share common services. Also, we’ll get a longer life out of the elementary school."

Opponents point out how such schools work against the widely adopted educational philosophy that smaller is better. They also stress how putting middle school students next to high school teens is an invitation for trouble.

Newmarket already has grades 6-12 in the same school, but this is a relic from the past, when the town was much smaller and rural. In 1950, Newmarket’s population was 2,700. It is now around 9,000 and has grown by nearly a 1,000 in the past five years. Growth is certain to continue, given the current rate of residential development and the open space that remains.

The town’s kindergarten enrollment in 2004-05 was 79, the elementary enrollment was 426, and the middle/senior high enrollment was 618. Newmarket saw 84 births in 2004, suggesting a steady enrollment for the foreseeable future.

Sheff said the $29 million price tag for the combined school shouldn’t be a deterrent since the school district is eligible for about 40 percent aid from the state. He added that two bonds are nearly paid off and a new high school/middle school would in effect replace those bonds, so taxpayers wouldn’t see a large tax increase.

This is all the more reason not to be so penny-wise and pound-foolish.

The committee conducted tours for parents to get some feedback on the options, but many residents still may be unaware of the plans. They need to become informed and act now.

If the School Board approves the proposal, it would be presented to voters next spring. If voters approve it, the new building could be constructed in time for occupancy by September 2008. The board may vote on the issue at its next meeting, scheduled for July 14.

There is more background about this story here.

Once again, it looks like finances rather than pedagogy is the driving force in the decision-making process.
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