Deasy Proposes K-8 Model to Forestall Academic Decline

Superintendent John Deasy says he would start with as many as 15 schools. (By James A. Parcell For The Washington Post)
By Nelson Hernandez
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 23, 2007

The Prince George's County school superintendent is proposing to expand schools that span kindergarten through eighth grade in hopes of stopping a decline in test scores that often begins in early adolescence.

John E. Deasy said in an interview yesterday that he will introduce the proposal at tonight's school board meeting. If the board approves, Deasy said he could begin by turning as many as 15 of the county's 141 elementary schools into sites that would teach students from the time they arrive as pre-kindergartners or kindergartners until they complete the eighth grade. He said the first of those schools could be running by the next academic year.

The schools would be similar to the handful of K-8 institutions operating in the county, Deasy said, and could offer specialized programs in Montessori, language immersion, performing arts or other educational styles. He said he hopes the proposed change would counter academic and disciplinary troubles that often begin in middle school, when students move from the heavily regulated environment of the early years into a setting in which they must take more responsibility for their education and face more complex moral decisions.

"It's where kids begin to form their notions of whether 'I am college material,' study skills, socialization patterns that often endure for the rest of their lives," Deasy said. "It's either where they come into contact with rigorous coursework and they succeed, or they don't."

U.S. public schools began adopting the middle school model in the early 1900s and largely switched to the current standard -- in which students spend sixth through eighth grades in a junior high or middle school -- by the 1960s. Middle schools were supposed to be a special place for adolescents, meant to help them toward adulthood by dealing with their issues and questions.

But the schools are receiving more scrutiny from educators who think that the transition between elementary and middle school can disrupt a child's education. Students who have trouble in middle school are more vulnerable to failure in high school or dropping out, educators say.

In Prince George's, the middle school challenge is clear from students' scores on state tests. Among third-graders last year, 69.5 percent showed proficient or advanced performance on the reading exam. In fifth grade, the figure was 61.8 percent; in eighth grade, it was 53 percent.

Although test scores in the county have climbed steadily in the past several years, middle school has proved more resistant to progress than the elementary grades. Eleven Prince George's elementary schools were recently able to shed a federal "school improvement" designation for struggling schools after showing improvement on state tests, but no middle school performed that feat.

Meanwhile, the county's few K-8 schools score well on state tests and have avoided being marked for school improvement. Deasy cited schools such as Robert Goddard in Seabrook, which offers Montessori and French-immersion programs, as examples of what he is proposing.

"We have lengthy waiting lists for people getting into these programs," Deasy said. "I don't want people to wait. I want people to have options where they can get their youth to succeed."

Many urban school systems have made similar moves as educational leaders have sought a solution to the middle school conundrum. Cleveland, Milwaukee, Newark and Philadelphia have tried K-8 education.

Pamela Smith, chief of staff for the Cleveland Metropolitan School District, said the system's switch to K-8 schools, completed three years ago, has begun to bear fruit. Deasy's proposal differs from what Cleveland has done -- that district abolished middle schools, but Deasy wants to keep some in operation -- but the motives are similar.

"We were having some challenges with our middle-schoolers and felt that if we could put them, many times with their brothers and sisters, they would become the leaders, they would become the models," Smith said. "They are the models for the younger kids. Their behavior is much better. They're much more willing to listen to adults, much more willing to help everyone in the school."

She said another benefit is that teachers across several grades can communicate more easily, allowing students to receive more consistent and focused education over several years.

That point particularly appeals to R. Owen Johnson Jr., the Prince George's school board chairman, who said he thought Deasy's proposal "had some value."

"It's an opportunity for an instructional program to be consistent," Johnson said. "You don't have the breaks in the instructional program. It's valuable."

Smith said the K-8 model is not a silver bullet and warned of "growing pains" during Cleveland's switch.

"Gradual transition is the best way to go," she said. "The data ought to drive the decision."

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