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Paynesville Press - Oct. 29, 2003

Sixth grade to stay at middle school, school board decides

By Michael Jacobson

Sixth grade will stay at the Paynesville Area Middle School, the school board decided last week at a special meeting to look at reorganizing the district.

The school district is looking to reorganize in order to reduce its administration to two building principals. One idea to do this was to move the sixth grade to the elementary school and divide the district under two principals: one K-6 and the other 7-12.

But the board, after urging from the district staff, has decided to retain as much of the middle school concept that it can and plans to keep sixth grade in their present location as part of a middle school with grades 6-8. The board also indicated its desire to keep a middle school office, staffed with a secretary.

The current district structure - with three school buildings - really started with the opening of the Paynesville Area Middle School in the early 1990s and the implementation of the middle school concept. This philosophy sees a need to bridge the gap between elementary school (where social skills and development have equal weight with academics) and high school (where academic performance is key).

Take two examples to illustrate the differences: homework and student movement. Traditionally in the elementary school, homework is minimal and student movement is done in groups, in lines, with teachers leading their class. At the high school, students have their own schedule and are responsible to get themselves to class on time and to do their homework.

The middle school concept tries to bridge this gap and to recognize that young teens - typically 11- to 14-year-olds - have special academic and social needs. So, in the middle school, students start getting more homework, but teachers try to monitor their study habits. Students have lockers and move to classes independently in the middle school, but, until budget cuts eliminated it, they also had homerooms and advisors that they saw everyday.

Due to budget cuts the past two years, the middle school concept has taken a hit, starting with the elimination of common prep time for grade-level teachers, the elimination of a full-time middle school principal position (with principal on special assignment Deb Gillman handling a number of administrative tasks as well as supervising the middle school staff), and the switch to a seven-period day (like the high school) to enable better staff sharing between these two schools.

At their special meeting on Thursday, Oct. 23, the board did not reach a conclusion about how to divide administrative tasks between two building principals. Right now, dividing the grades roughly in half (K-6 and 7-12) would put 55 staff members and 500 students under a K-6 principal and 60 staff members and 564 students under a 7-12 principal.

The board discussed whether it would be better to split administrative responsibility at the middle school or give it all to one principal. That could mean an administrative split either at K-5, 6-12 or at K-8, 9-12, with K-6, 7-12 also on the table.

Right now, the district has more students in the upper grades (with grades 7-12 averaging nearly 100 students per grade while grades K-6 average only just over 70 students per grade). This would support a higher break to divide the student and staff numbers for the principals more evenly.

But the district also needs to consider other administrative duties, especially curriculum coordinator. With increasing state and federal standards, this position is critical and increasing in complexity.

Currently, Gillman is the curriculum coordinator for the district, a job that is budgeted to take a third of her time. She said it took her six months to learn the details of the job and that she would be willing to keep that responsibility. The board indicated interest in keeping her as the curriculum coordinator.

Administration also suggested some ways that the two building principals could get support from the other staff. This includes adding the title of dean of students to the athletic director and making him responsible for helping a principal with discipline. (The dean of students would not have to be licensed as an administrator but would not be authorized to deal with the most serious discipline cases, any involving suspensions, for instance.)

The administration also suggested that the Title I teacher could help with curriculum and that the district could bring back department chairs (eliminated in budget cuts) to have teachers help administer their respective departments.

The board is expected to continue to discuss administrative responsibilities and the district's overall organization at upcoming board meetings, including their regular meeting on Tuesday, Oct. 28.

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