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Correction to This Article
This article on the possibility of expanding several D.C. elementary schools to include seventh and eighth grades incorrectly said that a proposal to close 23 schools would eliminate 15 million square feet of excess space. The closings would eliminate about 2 million square feet of space, reducing the total amount of space from 15 million to 12.8 million square feet.

D.C. Mulls A Return To Pre-K-8 Schools

Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee is considering an expansion of some Washington elementary schools to include students up to the eighth grade.
Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee is considering an expansion of some Washington elementary schools to include students up to the eighth grade. (By Jahi Chikwendiu/Post)
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By V. Dion Haynes
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 30, 2007

Reflecting a shifting national philosophy on how to educate middle-grade students, D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee is considering expanding several elementary schools to include students up to eighth grade, going back to a pre-kindergarten through eighth-grade structure once the norm in the District.

Rhee has been discussing the idea with parents and teachers for the past several weeks as part of her proposal to close nearly two dozen schools. The idea is being met with skepticism from elementary school parents who do not want adolescents in the buildings with their young children and elementary school teachers who are opposed to altering what they consider successful programs in the schools.

For others, the proposal is yet another change in a city in which the plan for the middle grades has changed with virtually every new school administration. Vestiges of the shifting strategies are seen in the pre-K-8 schools and middle schools in operation, as well as the converting of junior highs, which have fallen out of favor, into middle schools over the summer.

"I'm more concerned about getting the program right than whether it's a K-8 school or whatever," said Margot Berkey, director of Parents United for the D.C. Public Schools, whose group has studied the middle-grade issue. "I just think these critical years are ones educators haven't figured out what is the perfect thing to do."

For many years in the District and elsewhere, the norm was for students to remain in elementary school until eighth grade. Then the baby-boom years hit, forcing schools to create space by moving seventh- to ninth-graders into junior highs. By the 1980s, junior highs were passe and educators were embracing a new incarnation called middle schools, with grades six to eight.

In recent years, numerous urban districts, including Cleveland, Philadelphia and New York, have been phasing out middle schools and converting their elementary schools into pre-K-8 schools. Prince George's County is considering a plan that would create 25 schools over the course of five years that are pre-K-8. The advantage of such schools, according to some experts, is that adolescents are able to maintain their support systems and avoid a sometimes abrupt transition when they already are experiencing emotional and physical changes.

The D.C. proposal calls for establishing six pre-K-8 schools in Ward 4 and eight in Ward 5 out of existing elementary and middle schools, some of which would close. The elementary schools targeted for expansion include Barnard, Brightwood and LaSalle in Ward 4 and Emery, Langdon and Noyes in Ward 5. Barnard and Brightwood are in Northwest Washington, and the others are in Northeast.

Education officials said they have not determined whether they would extend the conversion to other parts of the city.

The school system's enrollment has dropped by nearly 20,000 students in five years, and Rhee proposes to close or consolidate 23 schools by summer to eliminate 15 million square feet of excess space. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) has told the D.C. Council that the proposal could save $23.6 million, money that could help the school system plug a budget shortfall.

Rhee has said the savings also could pay for new academic offerings, including Montessori and gifted and talented programs.

Middle school is the stage "we have the most difficulty with. This is where our enrollment drops," said Abigail Smith, special assistant to Victor Reinoso, deputy mayor for education.

The exodus out of the system accelerates after elementary school, Smith said, because parents believe that middle schools in the system are not working. "Part of what we want to do is help kids get through this transitional period in a supportive environment," she said.


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