Grade shuffle gets thumbs up

Monroe’s unusual middle, junior high schools make better use of facilities


Herald Writer

MONROE — Nancy Hutchison was nervous about the transition to middle school.

"I thought, ‘Oh, I don’t know if I want to do this," Hutchison remembers thinking.

Hutchison isn’t a student. She is a teacher, one of many to make the move to middle school after the Monroe School District shuffled grade levels a year ago.

The district converted its elementary schools to kindergarten through fourth-grade campuses and created fifth- through seventh-grade middle schools, a contrast to the more traditional K-5 elementary and six to eight middle schools. Eighth- and ninth-graders attend junior high, and Monroe High School is for grades 10 through 12.

The grade restructuring, a rarity in Washington, was aimed at making the most efficient use of classroom space in a rapidly growing district while offering a more focused approach to helping students meet tough new state academic standards.

The elementary and middle grade levels are aligned with the first two Washington Assessment of Student Learning exams, which are taken in the fourth and seventh grades. It allows entire teaching staffs across grades, often where there has not been much communication before, to coordinate their instructional efforts.

"The thing I am really seeing here this year is the fact that the seventh-grade WASL is not left to the seventh-grade teachers," said Joel Garrison, principal at Monroe Middle School. "We are really working as a team."

What Hutchison and others are finding is the change is also making for a gentler transition for students through the early middle school years.

"It’s really an elem-middle school," said Hutchison, a fifth-grade teacher at Hidden River Middle School at Maltby.

Hutchison has long sensed that there is a dramatic change in students during their fifth-grade year, and they are able to be more responsible, and they are ready for a change.

Bill Prenevost, the superintendent of the Monroe School District, said the merits of the grade level shift go beyond instruction and classroom space.

"I think more than anything it has allowed children to be younger longer," he said. "…We really have younger kids with younger kids for a longer period of time."

One year later, principals at the district’s three middle schools say they like the change. In general, fifth-graders remain with their homeroom teacher and instructional specialists, similar to elementary school. By seventh-grade, students have a more traditional middle school schedule with either several classes or a block schedule that includes fewer but longer courses that cover a combination of similar subjects.

Parents seem more comfortable volunteering at middle school with a younger student body, said Linda Boyle, principal at Frank Wagner Middle School.

John Eagle, a fifth-grader at Monroe Middle School, liked the move to middle school where he met friends from other elementary schools he had made through sports and church.

"I was surprised," he said. "I felt like I grew up, and I am in middle school now."

His brother, Joe, a seventh-grader, isn’t so sure about the grade reconfiguration. He likes getting first crack at electives but wonders about having elementary school students on a secondary school campus.

"It is like an extended elementary, and it gives you a younger feeling," Joe said.

Their mother, Colleen Eagle, PTA president at Monroe Middle, had initial concerns but likes the change. While the fifth-graders are largely separated from the older students, there is interaction when it makes sense and opportunities for some to receive higher level instruction for the more advanced students, she said.

"My biggest thought is kids always adjust; it’s the parents who have a tough time," Eagle said.

Debbie Hatcher, a teacher at Maltby Elementary, is also the mother of a middle school daughter who attends Hidden River.

"I knew she was going into good hands … so I had no apprehensive feelings whatsoever, academically or socially," she said.

Hatcher has also witnessed a change in Maltby’s fourth-graders, which are taking a greater leadership role at the school.

"It gives the kids another chance to grow," she said.

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