About five years ago, the Washington Unified School District in West Sacramento shifted its grade configuration in a big way. The district transitioned from a traditional model — several elementary schools feeding into a single middle school, which fed into a comprehensive high school — to a new model in which most students attend a neighborhood school serving grades K-8, and then move to a high school serving grades 9-12.
“I really like it,” said Associate Superintendent William Spalding, who started working in Washington Unified two years ago after working in other districts that have the more common elementary/middle/high school configuration. “In terms of school climate and culture, it has an enormous advantage. I’ve been a middle school principal — when you take the prepubescent behaviors and isolate them from older and younger students, it can feed some behaviors that may not get you what you’re looking for academically.”
“What I see in the K-8 configuration is that the eighth-graders take on responsibility and serve as kind of mentors, like big brothers and sisters to the other kids. It’s hard to quantify, but the school culture feels calmer,” Spalding said. “But it’s an investment,” both in terms of facilities and staffing.
Principal Grace Chin opened Bridgeway Island Elementary in West Sacramento as a K-6 elementary campus 11 years ago, and continued as principal when Bridgeway Island switched to a K-8 configuration about five years ago. Students in grades K-5 study in a classroom with a single teacher, as they did before.
“Our students in grades 6-8 have a six-period day, and move from class to class,” Chin said. ”What the district added to the school was a science lab, and another computer lab. We don’t have a gym or a locker room, but we have a physical activity room with an indoor climbing wall, rowing and biking machines, and other equipment for P.E.”
Chin said there was some parent concern about having kindergartners and eighth-graders on the same campus.
“But the older kids’ classrooms are in a different wing, and the younger kids are their siblings and neighbors,” Chin said. “We have them for nine years. The younger kids look up to the older kids. We are also a (school) uniform district, so from kindergarten through eighth grade, the kids are in uniform.”
Adding seventh- and eighth-graders boosted Bridgeway Island’s enrollment from about 670 students and one principal (as a K-6 school) to about 930 students with a principal and assistant principal (as a K-8 campus, with about 100 students per grade level). There are no combination classes, with students of different grade levels studying together. The older students and younger kids eat lunch at different times; the younger children get more recess time.
In terms of the state’s academic performance index, Bridgeway Island Elementary has an 882 ranking — very much within the range of elementary schools within Davis, and more than 100 points higher than Bridgeway Island’s 765 API ranking in 2005, when it was a K-6 school.
And the Washington Unified district is one of the few in the region that has maintained class-size reduction. In K-3 classrooms at Bridgeway Island, there are 20 students per teacher. But the school does not have counselors (whereas junior high schools in Davis do). Bridgeway Island has a band program, but Washington Unified doesn’t have the kind of string music/orchestra program that is found in Davis schools.
Chin said, “I think the main advantage is that the teachers really know the students. And the students know all the teachers. We’re also extending their childhood a little bit more. If you go to my school dance at Bridgeway Island, we don’t have some of the issues that the junior highs in Davis sometimes have at dances. My daughter went to junior high in Davis.”
Spalding added, “Running a K-8 school, there are lots of plates we keep spinning. But I wouldn’t trade it. Even though there are some tricky parts to it, the overall result is better, particularly around school culture.”