By a 5-2 vote, the Montgomery County school board voted this week to begin the process of converting county junior high schools, containing grades seven, eight and nine, to middle schools containing grades six, seven and eight.
The board will start by converting Edwin W. Broome Junior High in Rockville, Julius West Junior High in Rockville and Newport Junior High in Kensington to middle schools, effective next September.
George Fisher, director of planning for the school system, calculated that the cost of conversion to middle schools will be $200 per sixth grader or $134,400 for some 672 sixth graders who will leave their elementary schools for the three middle schools. In addition, Fisher said, another $20,000 will probably be spent per middle school - a total of $60,000 - for building modifications like taking walls out or for purchasing equipment.
Fisher said that as the switch to middle schools eventually hits the Gaithersburg-Upper Rockville school area, the school system would need to build a new $12.2 million high school. Fisher added that middle schools, however, would eliminate the need for two new elementary schools in that area, which would have totaled possibly $7.6 million.
Board members Marian Greenblatt and Herbert Benington, who finished his term as board president this week, both voted against the middle school policy which the school staff and the communities surrounding the schools have strongly supported.
Greenblatt suggested that the board move to establish not middle schools, but intermediate schools containing seventh and eighth grades only. The middle school with sixth through eighth grades would have "an adverse effect on the elementary schools during a period of declining enrollment," Greenblatt said.
Benington said he supported Greenblatt's proposal, and added that the change to middle schools would cost too much money and affect too many people. "Implementing the six to eight concept would be too much," he said "It would be too much. It takes a great deal of management effort." Also, he said, "the academic arguments are weak in every direction."
Board member Verna Fletcher said, "I think the seven through eight schools are good schools, but they do not do for kids what we want." Fletcher has argued previously, as have most middle school proponents, that grouping sixth, seventh, and eighth grades together is better because those students are more emotionally similar than the traditional junior high grouping.
Supt. Charles M. Bernardo said the grouping of seventh and eighth grades into intermediate schools had several drawbacks. "It's likely such a school would have few if any elementary teachers," he said. One of the features of the middle school is a combination of secondary school teachers and elementary school teachers.
Bernardo said there was also little that intermediate schools could do to improve over junior high schools.
At the suggestion of board member Blair Ewing, the middle school policy was amended to say that middle schools would be evaluated at a yet unspecified time by an independent, outside source. The middle schools will be compared to present three-year junior highs and to Frost and Baker schools which each contain only seventh and eighth grade.
At a public hearing last week, arguments for and against middle schools ran the gamut. Many speakers coupled their support with warnings to the board to carefully evaluate the program as it went along.
The Parent Teacher Student Association (PTSA) at both Newport Junior High and Julius West Junior High supported the conversion of their schools to middle schools. But each asked board members to adopt a general statement of support for middle schools.
"We need funding for staff development, plant modification, supplies and materials, and good knowledgeable advice," said Wilbur H. Friedman, the copresident of the Newport Junior High PTSA. "We think that board support would best be manifested by a board commitment to middle schools generally, so that Newport would not be viewed as a pilot middle school, but rather as the first of many middle schools."
The West PTSA also requested that the board appoint Raymond J. DeBalso, the principal of the junior high, as principal of the middle school. Bernardo had said earlier that the principals of the middle schools would be chosen on a competitive basis.
Sandra King-Shaw, president of the Montgomery County Council of PTA's told the board the council also favored a board commitment to countywide conversion of junior highs to middle schools. King-Shaw said later she wanted the board to creating a climate similiar to those affecting the county's current middle schools, Southlawn and Farquhar.
"They were put out there as pilots without any board or community support," she said. "If we just stick three schools out there on a limb as a pilot, they will wither."
Other speakers had qualms about the academic validity of grouping sixth, seventh and eighth grades. Few said ninth graders should not go to high school. But several said sixth graders should not have to leave elementary schools.
". . . Why should people who are pleased with their schools from kindergarten to 12th grade have middle schools foisted upon them?" Nelson Markley, the Wheaton Woods Elementary School PTA President, asked the board. "In sixth grade at Wheaton Woods they consolidate the basic skills by emphasizing individual reading and library research. By the end of the year they are able to independently learn about an assigned subject in the library and give a comprehensive report of their findings. Being the oldest children in a community oriented school they have a real pride in their school. We already have an excellent educational climate."
Others cited lack of evidence to support the middle school proposal. "We agree that the ninth grade belongs in high school," said a spokesman for the Montgomery Citizens for Education, "but we disagree with the porposed Montgomery County Public School's middle school concept. No one has been able to show us that the sixth, seventh and eighth grade middle school is academically better than the seventh and eighth grade intermediate school."
Montgomery County's two middle schools, Farquhar and Southlawn, were cited by speaker Carol Wallace. "Where is your evaluation of these schools?" she asked. "Which is best academically? Which is most cost effective?"
Since taking the sixth grade out of an elementary school can reduce its population and possibly shorten its lifepan in this era of enrollment decline and yearly school closures, many opponents of the middle school plan claimed it would skew school populations.
Some believed that high schools would get an unfair advantage with their bonus of ninth graders from defunct junior highs. One of the fall's most controversial debates between school communities was sparked as a result of a report from Bernardo last spring saying that if Newport were not converted to a middle school soon, Woodward, Einstein, and Northwood High Schools would be possible closure candidates. But if Newport was converted, only Woodward would have to close, he continued. Woodward has protested its proposed closure.