Montgomery County School Superintendent Charles M. Bernardo strongly urged the board of education at a meeting last week to endorse the proposed conversion of junior high schools to middle schools.
A task force on secondary school reorganization recommended in the spring of 1976 that the school system shift its current grade format of elementary (kindergarten-6), junior high (7-9) and senior high (10-12) to elementary (kindergarten-5), middle school (6-8), senior high (9-12). However, the board never acted on the report.
If the board approves the policy recommended by Bernardo, three junior highs - Julius West and Edwin W. Broome in Rockville and Newport in Kensington - would become middle schools. There now are three middle schools in the county - Southlawn in Rockville, Farquhar in Olney and Piney Branch in Takoma Park. Bernardo asked the board to vote on the middle-school proposal at an all-day board meeting set for Dec. 13, to allow the district time to convert the schools by next fall. A public hearing on secondary school reorganization is set for Dec. 8.
Proponents of middle schools say the plan groups youngsters who are developmentally similar. Since the ninth grade is a high school grade, the departmentalized structure of high school now is imposed on seventh and eighth graders as well, according to Bernardo's middle-school policy.
"The junior high today is usually departmentalized," board member Verna Fletcher said after the meeting last week. "Kids go from one teacher to another. They have six or seven teachers a day. The teachers don't have time to talk to the kids."
In a middle school, students would take different classes with different teachers, but three would be more coordination and more counseling than in the junior highs. As an example, Fletcher said, "The English and social studies teachers would meet the accepted curriculum but the teachers would talk about how an English composition could incorporate social studies concepts."
"A strong factor in my approving this would be if I were confident that the elementary schools were neutral-to-enthusiastic about middle schools," school board president Herbert Benington said. "I've found a lot of elementary schools hostile. They say it's stealing their kids."
Bernardo said be had found that many community parents and students knowledgeable about the plan and favorable toward it. "I walked around Bloome and asked kids if they knew about the middle school idea," Bernardo said, "and they all did."
Bernardo said a change to middle schools would not necessarily affect an elementary school's fate. "The movement to middle schools will not exacerbate the problem of elementary school closings," he said. "The problem is so acute that schools would be closed with or without the sixth grade."
The vague guidelines of the policy which school board members cririclzed, are necessary, said Bernardo. "We could say West will look precisely like this, and Newport will look precisely like this," Bernardo said, "but that would elicit protest from the staff because we would be violating an important part of this policy which says the schools and the communities plan this together."
Bernardo's policy provides for a Local School Planning Group of parents, students, teachers, administrators and staff, who will develop a plan for the middle school in its area.
"It's going to be difficult for the board to go against this when the staff and the communities have been primed for it," said board member Marian Greenblatt at the end of the meeting which she had sat through quietly. Greenblatt said she still had unanswered questions about the proposal, including the question of what happens to small elementary schools that get smaller without sixth graders. "Are we suddenly saying it's okay to have a school (with an enrollment) under 200?" Greenblatt asked. "That's been a condition for closing."