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Where to put ninth-graders? Jr. high? High school?

Davis High students walk between classes on Wednesday. The school has an enrollment of 1,718 students; adding ninth-graders would increase the enrollment by 575-620 students. Sue Cockrell/Enterprise photo

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From page A1 | February 10, 2013 |

Should the Davis school district reconfigure its schools, moving ninth-graders from their current assignment at the district’s junior high schools to a four-year high school program?

And if that change is made, should there be other changes as well, at the elementary and junior high levels?

On Jan. 9, the Davis school board asked Superintendent Winfred Roberson and his staff to look into the possibilities for reconfiguration, and three trustees indicated a particular interest in learning more about the pros and cons of a 9-12 high school.

“I absolutely want to look at having ninth-graders at Davis High,” said trustee Gina Daleiden, who added, “Most of the rest of the world is 9-12.”

Indeed, out of approximately 1,000 California school districts and other local education agencies, only four have high schools for 10th- through 12th-graders. That prompted trustee Tim Taylor to ask, “My pointed question, what do we know, what is it that we are doing, that makes us so much wiser than the 98 to 99 percent of districts who have figured out that ninth-graders belong at a high school? Why is Davis so unique and so much smarter that we know ninth-graders ar better off at a junior high?”

Truth be told, Davis is one of the very few California school districts that still uses the term “junior high school.” The vast majority have switched to the term “middle school” and those schools are sometimes run in configurations of grades 7-8 or 6-8.

A growing number of school districts — including the Washington Unified District in West Sacramento — are dropping the middle school idea altogether, and running their elementary schools for grades K-8, then moving students to high school.

Roberson and his staff have been gathering information for a report to the board this month or next. In the meantime, The Enterprise gathered opinions from Davis residents, veteran educators at the UC Davis School of Education and others, with the goal of illuminating the issue.

When a school district considers changing the grade configuration, there are typically three aspects that come into play: academic performance, the district budget and facilities.

‘With all the ninth-graders on one campus, the class choices would be increased’

The Davis school district is generally considered to be a high performer in academic terms, with a districtwide rating of 877 on the state’s Academic Performance Index, and all of Davis’ regular schools scoring over 800. Holmes Junior High is one of the few “middle schools” in the region that scores over 900.

But Davis has been dogged for years by a structural budget deficit, currently estimated at between $1.5 million and $2.5 million by Associate Superintendent Bruce Colby. Even though Davis has reduced staffing by about 100 positions and increased class sizes across the board, Davis’ programs continues to cost more than its anticipated revenue, into the foreseeable future. Bringing revenue and spending into balance basically boils down to choices involving staffing, programs and facilities.

And when it comes to facilities, Davis has one comprehensive high school (Davis High), three junior high schools (Emerson, Harper, Holmes) and eight elementary schools (plus the Valley Oak campus, which hosts grades 10-12 of Da Vinci Charter Academy, and the Davis Children’s Center). Smaller facilities include the continuation program at King High School and rural Fairfield Elementary, a two-classroom school serving grades K-3.

The district also owns about eight undeveloped acres on Grande Avenue in North Davis; a similar-sized parcel known as Nugget Fields at Moore Boulevard and Pole Line Road; and the district’s administrative headquarters, a set of aging buildings occupying a city block at Fifth and B streets in downtown Davis. The latter property is considered prime real estate with a strong potential for redevelopment.

Those are the facilities chess pieces. The question is, what’s the best way to use them, while getting closer to a balanced budget?

The question of placing ninth-graders at Davis High has come up before — in fact, DHS was briefly configured for grades 9-12 during the late 1970s. Cathy Farman, now the president of the DHS PTA, was a high school junior at that time, and recalls that bringing the ninth-graders on campus “was a temporary measure, when the old Emerson Junior High campus (downtown) was closed, and the new Emerson campus (in West Davis) was being built.”

Farman recalls that “for students who were juniors and seniors, it created a greater sense of being an ‘upperclassman.’ Even for juniors, there were two grades below. The halls were more crowded, but after a short period of adjustment I do not remember any strong feeling that it changed the character of the school.”

Farman said PTA members already have had “a lengthy discussion” about the possibility of absorbing ninth-graders on the DHS campus, given present enrollment.

“My initial concern is for the ability to physically accommodate the additional ninth-graders on a campus that already seems full,” she said. “I assume the school board would not add ninth-graders unless it is determined that there was adequate room for them. I hope that the school board also considers the issue of lunchtime on a campus with no indoor space for students to eat. On rainy and cold days, students eating lunch on campus huddle under overhangs and crowd into the one indoor hallway in the L building.

“Adding ninth-graders,” Farman continued, “should also raise the question of having a closed-campus during lunch, at least for ninth- and 10th-graders, and that would not be possible without a multipurpose room.”

The existing MPR, built in the 1960s, was closed in 2010 due to a leaky roof and black mold. It is scheduled to be demolished this summer. A few years ago, the school board got a rough estimate that a new student commons/MPR building would cost about $10 million. The district’s facilities budget does not currently have the necessary funds.

“I would hope that the school board would weigh in the need to close the Davis High campus and to build an MPR as a package of considerations for bringing the ninth-graders to Davis High, rather than addressing these issues piecemeal,” Farman said.

“Academically, the addition of ninth-graders would enhance Davis High’s ability to better articulate student progression through subject areas and ensure that all students graduating with a Davis High diploma have had similar academic opportunities for all four grades being reported on the Davis High transcript,” she said.

“Likewise with all the ninth-graders on one campus, the class choices would be increased for ninth-graders due to the larger pool of students for placement. Finally, the ninth-graders would have a clearer understanding of the importance of classes they take during their ninth-grade year, if they were actually attending the school that will be reporting their ninth-grade performance on a high school transcript.”

‘Davis High’s capacity is a range of approximately 2,300 to 2,600 students’

How many students can the DHS campus accommodate? Mike Adell, the district’s director of facilities, said “this is way too early in the discussion process” to give a fully researched answer. But he indicated the campus capacity is “a range of approximately 2,300 to 2,600 students, assuming loading at 37 students per classroom, and fully loading each classroom throughout the day, utilizing all classrooms for instruction, and fully loaded P.E. sections throughout the day.”

What about the upcoming MPR demolition? Will there be some sort of outdoor dining area?

“Part of the MPR demolition project will include extending the existing concrete outdoor eating area with a concrete pad, tree wells/seat wells, and a decomposed granite area for a garden,” Adell said. “Although not included in the project, there will be space in the concrete pad area for a future shade structure/outdoor eating structure.”

Traffic is another consideration. Ninth-graders are too young to have driver’s licenses, but many such students are driven to school by a parent, particularly on rainy days.

An estimated 1,700 students currently attend Davis High. Adding ninth-graders would bring another 560 to 600 students to campus. Davis High enrollment peaked in 2001-02 at about 1,900 students, but that was before construction of the Instructional Performing Arts Building, which included classroom space, rehearsal rooms for music and a 500-seat theater.

‘We have a system that works very well. Let’s keep it’

Some parents and teachers are convinced that ninth-graders are better served in their current junior high school setting. Teacher Jeanne Reeve of Holmes Junior High laid out this case at the Jan. 24 school board meeting, saying that she’s convinced ninth-graders do better in the “smaller learning community” on a junior high campus with an enrollment of 600 to 750 students.

“We have integrated programs, many teachers work with grades seven, eight and nine,” Reeve said, adding, “We have integrated reading and writing courses combined with coordinated social studies classes, well-planned science classes, math classes at many levels, specialized classes for students with learning difficulties, and electives like music and choir — most without audition requirements.

“It would not be easy to dismantle all of this and move it to the high school. I urge you not to change the configuration of junior and senior high schools in Davis. We have a system that works very well. Let’s keep it.”

‘I’m not sure that changing something like configuration is going to have a significant impact on student outcomes’

The Enterprise also consulted Harold Levine, dean of the School of Education at UCD. Levine said grade configuration is not his area of expertise, but offered several observations as someone with a broad perspective on education. He pointed out that student stress levels are typically higher in “transition years,” when students move from elementary to middle school, or middle school to high school. And this tends to be the case regardless of how grades are configured.

Levine added that “the Davis community is so supportive of its schools, and learning, and college-going. … I’m not sure that changing something like configuration is going to have a significant impact on student outcomes as measured by testing. If there are other good reasons to change — whether they are financial or (there is) research that would indicate that children’s social and emotional life improves, or that transitions are easier if you go to a K-8 configuration and then the transition into ninth grade is easier — that might be worth consideration by the school board.”

Levine continued, “Let’s say in some distant future there was new money that came into the school system, and we came back to smaller class sizes — where would you find the space? That would be an important consideration. But new money (from the state) probably isn’t going to be here for a while.”

Levine added that the UCD School of Education is involved with the West Sacramento Early College Prep Charter School; Levine is president of that school’s board of directors. The school is a small learning community serving grades 6-12, using a project-based learning approach similar to Da Vinci Charter Academy in Davis.

“We do a lot of multi-age groupings,” Levine said. “There’s really a lot of opportunity for older kids to mentor and shepherd the younger kids.”

‘We’re a multi-age society. It’s far better to have variation among groups of young people’

Paul Heckman, associate dean of the School of Education at UCD, told The Enterprise in a separate conversation that he has reservations about a grade-by-grade approach to learning.

“We know that children do not develop in one-year chunks, except in gestation,” Heckman said. “We talk about senior citizens — that spans decades. We talk about adulthood — that spans decades. We talk about adolescence — that spans a number of years. But when it comes to schooling, we think it’s a nine-month phenomenon. We say, ‘Well, now he’s becoming a second-grader.’ But you don’t become a second-grader — you move into a structure that calls it second grade. But the child is still a child.

“In a lot of these discussions, we start by getting caught in an artifact, a mental model for organizing things (at school),” Heckman said. “But it has very little basis in fact. Even when we’re talking about kids ‘being on grade level,’ we mean the test scores they should have on the California Standards Test, and then the variations that happen, we say they’re above or below. But there really is no statistical notion called grade level.”

Heckman likes a model that includes “bringing a broad range of kids (of different ages) together.” He points out that in the working world, “the same-age people don’t work together (in a single office). The same-age people don’t make decisions on boards or civic activities. We’re a multi-age society. It’s far better to have variation among groups of young people interacting together. They bring various kinds of knowledge and skills together.”

Heckman continued, “There’s evidence in neuroscience that there are about 100 trillion connections (in our brain) where our memories are. But while each of us has 100 trillion connections, they’re not the same. The variation is because of the way that the mind works. But we’re treating children as though they are all very much the same at the same age span. And I find that not very likely.”

— Reach Jeff Hudson at [email protected] or 530-747-8055.

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