On Oct. 21, the Merrill Area Public School Board will consider an administrative recommendation to move fifth grade out of its elementary schools and into Prairie River Middle School, starting with the 2014-2015 school year.
The recommendation is based on current space needs at Washington Elementary School and particularly at Jefferson Elementary School. After Pine River Elementary School was closed following the 2011-12 school year, those students were moved to Washington School and other students were shifted west to Kate Goodrich and Jefferson.
Jefferson School is experiencing the most severe overcrowding of the elementary schools.
“I think it had something to do with the shift in students and trying to balance schools with the redistricting a couple of years ago,” Jefferson Principal Ruth DeJarlais said.
A building usage analysis shows that Jefferson is at 109% of facility usage capacity. The optimal usage is 70-80%.
The school is currently running three lunch periods and two portable classrooms house first grade classes. Last year, the fifth grades were in the portable classrooms.
The portables were brought to Jefferson as a temporary solution 15 years ago. They were previously used as art and music rooms, but following the redistricting, they were pressed into service as regular classrooms. Art and music are now delivered on a cart.
Moving fifth grade to the middle school will free up two classrooms at Jefferson, allowing the school to discontinue use of the portable classrooms, create a combined art and music room, and go back to two lunch shifts.
“Our goal is to have art and music in the building,” DeJarlais said.
Even before Pine River closed, Washington School was hurting for support staff space, said Washington Principal Paul Klippel. The school does not have an art or music room and specialists share a small space. By moving the fifth grade to the middle school, Washington would also pick up two classrooms. Klippel said one would become an art/music room and the other would likely become a reading room.
“This will give us some flexibility to move people around,” he said.
One of the reasons why the administrators supported this option is that unlike others that were considered, moving the fifth grade class does not require significant program changes or construction of additional space.
“We’re looking at it being cost neutral for the district,” PRMS Principal Gerald Beyer said.
The recommendation does not include the Maple Grove Charter School, which would continue to house classes from kindergarten through grade five.
“Over the last several months, MAPS administrators have considered various options to address overcrowding at Jefferson Elementary School and, to a lesser degree, at Washington Elementary, as well as to ensure that students at all grade levels have the kind of space that allows us to adopt a more modern curriculum,” said Walter Leipart, superintendent. “The recommendation made by the administration to move fifth grade to the middle school takes into consideration all students, and especially those who would be most impacted in the first year.”
After evaluating the proposal during their meeting next Monday, board members will vote on the proposal. If the board votes to move the fifth grade classes to the middle school, a committee of parents and educators will be formed to address program enhancements, transition concerns, and other issues related to starting a fifth grade program at the middle school. If the board decides to keep the fifth graders at the elementary schools, space concerns will still need to be addressed.
“This is a major decision that will have a positive impact on our schools and students,” said Leipart. “As such, my colleagues and I are very interested in hearing parents’ and other community members’ opinions on this recommendation.”T
he idea of moving the 5th grade to the middle school came up three years ago, during discussions of closing Pine River School.
“Our recommendation was to move the fifth grade when they closed the Pine River building,” Klippel said.
While he would miss having the fifth graders at the elementary school, Klippel sees new opportunities for fifth graders at the middle school.
“If I didn’t see a potential kid benefit to this, I wouldn’t be recommending it,” he said.
One area where the fifth graders would miss out would be in leadership opportunities at the elementary school, Klippel noted. Fifth graders have traditionally served on Safety Patrols and student councils.
Declining enrollment has led MAPS to close three elementary school buildings in the past 10 years. That downward trend looks to have stabilized, Klippel said.
“It looks like enrollment has flattened out,” he said. “I think we’re seeing the end of the decline.”
Prairie River Middle School principal Gerald Beyer said adequate space is available in his building to accommodate the fifth graders. The population at PRMS has declined by about 20 percent and is now leveling off, with the smallest class in the district currently in eighth grade.
While school buildings run most efficiently at 70-80% of capacity, PRMS is currently at about 50%, Beyer said, with a few rooms vacant. Based on the number of fourth graders in the district this year, the population at PRMS would increase from 552 to 714. That would put the building at 65% of its potential student capacity.
Beyer noted that there are 57 schools in the state with a grade 5-8 building.
The fifth grade classrooms would be located on the first floor, where sixth grade classrooms are presently. The sixth grade would move to occupy part of the first floor and part of the second floor.
“One of the decisions to make in this process will be whether the fifth grade is self-contained or treated like middle school, or something in between,” Beyer said.
In any case, the fifth graders would not have much contact during the school day with older students, Beyer said.
“We have three different grades now, but we have three different schedules. The three grades do not circulate the building at the same time. With fifth grade being on the first floor only, when they do have passing time other grades aren’t in the hallways,” Beyer said. “They will have no classes or lunch with eighth graders.”
Beyer added that the presence of older students can be a positive thing. Three years ago, PRMS instituted the Where Everybody Belongs (WEB) program, which trains eighth grade mentors to help incoming sixth graders. The program provides a leadership opportunity for the older students and peace of mind for the younger students. This year, over 40 eighth graders participated in WEB mentoring, with an initial meeting before the first day of school.
“The angst and anxiety of middle school goes away before school even starts,” Beyer said.
If fifth graders are added to the mix, next year’s WEB program will be expanded to include both fifth and sixth graders.
The district’s fifth grade teachers would come to the middle school with the students.
Advantages for the teachers, Beyer said, include allowing easier collaboration across the grade level.
“The idea of having all fifth grade teachers in one building is a powerful thing,” Beyer said. “We can really ensure that the content of curriculum is consistent.”
Parents and other community members are asked to contact their local elementary school principal at the numbers provided below to talk or set up an appointment to meet in person. In addition, Gerald Beyer, Principal of Prairie River Middle School is available to answer questions and hear concerns, and can be reached at 715-536-9593. Finally, Superintendent of Schools Walter Leipart can be contacted at 715-536-4581. The proposal under consideration by the board was made unanimously by district administration.
Washington Elementary School Principal Paul Klippel, 715-536-2373
Jefferson Elementary School Principal Ruth DeJarlais, 715-536-5432
Kate Goodrich Elementary School Principal Mark Jahnke, 715-536-5233