A subcommittee of the Jim Thorpe Area School District Board of Education's curriculum committee that was tasked with studying the pros and cons of building a new Kindergarten through eighth grade (K-8) building, or a new sixth grade through eighth grade middle school, made its report during the board's meeting on Monday night.
After much discussion, the board acted to accept the subcommittee's recommendation and voted to move forward on constructing a new middle school building somewhere in the district.
The subcommittee was made up of eight educators and administrators from the district, including Dr. Jean Bickel, high school librarian; Ron Ellison, high school social studies teacher; Robert Lee, L.B. Morris seventh and eighth grade social studies teacher; Dave Marino, L.B. Morris sixth grade math, science and social studies teacher; Kristin O'Donnell, Penn-Kidder seventh and eighth grade reading teacher; Sara Mass, Penn-Kidder second grade teacher; Tom Condly, L.B. Morris seventh and eighth grade reading teacher; and Dave McAndrews, L.B. Morris assistant principal.
"We were asked as a committee to look at the educational delivery model and grade configuration for the Jim Thorpe Area School District as the school board looks at building a new building," Bickel said, as she launched a set of PowerPoint slides to illustrate the committee's findings. "We looked at the whole K-12 ramifications for any configuration."
The committee spent a day and a half together, studying available research and discussing the various pros and cons of constructing either a middle school or a third K-8 building.
The committee pointed out that K-8 schools are becoming less prevalent across the nation. In 1988, there were 5,552 such schools across the country. By 2001, there were only 3,170 still in use. In Pennsylvania, only 18 of 500 school districts use the K-8 configuration; Jim Thorpe is the only such district in Carbon County. Of the 155 K-8 buildings in the state, 145 of these are in urban districts with 99 of them located within the city of Philadelphia.
The committee found few advantages to building a new K-8 school in the district, including shorter transportation distances to "neighborhood" schools, having children in the same school for nine years, often accompanied by an older sibling, and having younger and older students together to facilitate tutoring. Additionally, students would only have to make one transition after leaving K-8 for high school.
But there were many disadvantages, including problems having older and younger students together, scheduling problems, fewer specialized classes and activities, a more difficult transition to high school, and split building personalities as educators attempted to cater to two different types of students.
The committee pointed out that students in grades 6 through 8 are changing rapidly and have special needs that they felt might not be met as well in a K-8 building.
There were few disadvantages for a middle school, according to the committee. It would require siblings to break up sooner, involve the possibility of a longer commute for some students and involve two transitions during their school career.
On the plus side, however, the committee said that a middle school would improve scheduling, allow for common planning time among teachers, bring district populations together at an earlier age, make academic and athletic clubs easier to build and manage, allow for age-appropriate emotional supports and provide a variety of teaching styles in the same building to meet the different learning needs of different students.
While many of the advantages offered in the middle school configuration seemed to benefit students indirectly by making it easier for teachers to do their jobs, bringing students together to begin building relationships earlier seemed to be a direct benefit to the children.
The committee pointed out that there are nearly five times as many African American students at the Penn-Kidder building than there are at the L.B. Morris elementary. Similarly, there are three times as many Hispanic children at Penn-Kidder than L.B. Morris. Putting them all in the same building earlier could help them resolve differences and find common ground before they entered high school.
Finally, Lee told the board that a study in New York had shown that "success in middle school is a predictor of success in high school and beyond. Problems in grades six, seven and eight is also a predictor of problems in high school and beyond. It is a critical crossroads on the student's journey to success," he said.
Not all board members were convinced. Both Peter McGuire and board President Randall Smith expressed disappointment that more statistics were not presented to show the ultimate effects of the configuration on the students' short- and long-term success. Committee members said those studies simply don't exist. Ellen Kattner said she wished she had more time to study the report and Thomas Henry agreed.
Board member Gerry Strubinger was the only member of the board who spoke up against the middle school concept. He said he was not against any particular configuration, but that due to the size of the district it didn't make sense to put a middle school in the center and bus children from both ends to the middle.
"You have to understand that we have a 30-mile long school district and we have heavy populations on both ends," Strubinger said. "If we had a smaller school district, I guess it wouldn't be an issue, but it is an issue. It's a safety issue. The more you put students in buses, the higher the risk we'll have."
He compared busing children from the ends of the district into the geographical center –located near where the turnpike crosses under State Route 903 – to busing children from Jim Thorpe all the way to Palmerton.
"I'm sure there would be a tremendous outcry in Jim Thorpe," he said. "I think we need to be very sensitive. I have not talked to any parent that's in favor of busing their children to accommodate a middle school."
Superintendent Barbara Conway disagreed.
"I would be happy to go to the PTA meetings and get parents who support the middle school configuration for you," she said. "I think our principals will tell you that they've had many conversations with parents, just as you have. We agree with the safety concerns. This committee was asked to provide a delivery model and that's what they've done."
She pointed out that the task of determining where that delivery model will be located is the next step. But Strubinger argued that the model chosen will impact the busing issue and they could not be treated separately.
Smith thanked the committee for its report and said that the board would vote at its next meeting. Board member Michael Huber asked why the board couldn't act now. When Smith said there was no particular reason, Huber made the motion that the board adopt the middle school configuration as the delivery model for the next district building constructed.
Dr. Clem McGinley seconded the motion, but before it could be discussed, Strubinger moved to table Huber's motion. Strubinger's motion died for lack of a second. There was some discussion, mostly centered around whether the public should be invited to one or more public meetings to discuss the issue.
"We're not listening to what the parents say," Strubinger said. "We need to have public input from the taxpayers."
"When I was employed as a teacher in this school district, when the board chose to go to a K-8 school district, the teachers weren't even asked their choice, let alone the public back then," Huber said. "The teachers were not asked at all and I can't find anybody that I know of that was asked whether they wanted a K-8 building or to go to a middle school concept. There was no question or discussion."
"I like the concept of the 6-8 grades (together), but unfortunately I feel like the district's (students) are so far apart, how are you going to solve that?" Kattner asked. "The town and the mountain are so far apart."
Strubinger made a second motion to table the issue indefinitely and Kattner seconded it. That motion failed to pass.
Huber's original motion came back to the floor and a roll-call vote of board members was taken. Only Kattner and Strubinger voted against the motion. The board voted to move forward on a new middle school for the district.
The next step will be to call in the board's financial advisers to begin planning for the new addition. Advisors will be invited to appear at the next meeting of the school board, which will take place on Dec. 1.