Highline School District will move 6th Grade to Middle School


Ellen Dorr believes moving sixth grade to middle school will have a positive impact on students.

Teacher Ellen Dorr believes moving sixth grade to middle school will have a positive impact on students.

The Highline School District announce Friday (April 4) that it will be moving 6th grade to Middle School, starting in the 2015-16 school year “or later.”

The district said the decision to make the move comes “after months of studying enrollment projections, staff and community feedback, and academic research.”

“I am thrilled that sixth-graders will finally be in a place that is developmentally appropriate for them. Sixth-graders belong in middle school,” said Des Moines Elementary School teacher Nicole Malmgren, who has taught sixth grade for five years.

“Everybody always talks about the fear of putting 11-year-olds with 14- and 15-year-olds, but what about putting 11-year-olds with five-year-olds?” added Malmgren. “How is that pushing them forward? They fit in with their middle school peers better than they do five-year-olds in kindergarten.”

Malmgren plans to work with Human Resources to obtain her math endorsement so she can move with her sixth-grade students.

Currently, Highline’s elementary schools are grades K-6, and middle schools are grades 7 and 8.

“In our current model, middle school can be overlooked as simply a bridge between elementary and high school, but I believe middle school has its own merit and deserves its own focus,” said eighth-grade teacher Ellen Dorr, who has taught language arts at Cascade Middle School for ten years. She is excited for sixth-grade students to join the Cascade community.

Teacher Nicole Malmgren wants to move with her sixth-grade students to middle school

Teacher Nicole Malmgren wants to move with her sixth-grade students to middle school, saying they belong in middle school.

The 6-8 grade configuration is the most common middle school model nationwide, and it’s not a new concept in Highline. A task force made up of Highline teachers, administrators, and parents researched middle school models in 2009. The research showed that K-6 and 6-8 configurations can be equally successful and that quality of classroom instruction and school climate are the primary factors in student achievement.

“At the end of the study, there was a desire to move sixth grade to middle school, but we didn’t have nearly enough space,” said Chief Accountability Officer Alan Spicciati, who co-chaired the task force. Building new middle schools was not an option at the time, given the recession.

“This is something we’ve wanted to do for a while now,” said Spicciati. “We just needed the right opportunity to make the move. Now, we have an opportunity to do it.”

Today, Highline needs more classroom space at elementary schools. The state is now funding full-day kindergarten and offering money for smaller class sizes. To take advantage of class size dollars, Highline must add 55 more classrooms across the district. Elementary schools are already full or over capacity. Without available classrooms, Highline may lose out on up to $2.2 million annually in new state funding for class-size reduction.

Cascade Middle School students reading independently during class.

Cascade Middle School students reading independently during class.

“I am confident the decision to move sixth grade to middle school is in the best academic interests of our students at all grade levels,” said Superintendent Susan Enfield. “It allows us to eliminate crowding and decrease class sizes at elementary schools, and it also gives us an opportunity to increase the academic rigor and broaden learning experiences for sixth graders.”

In middle school, sixth-grade students will be taught by subject area specialists who get deep training and professional development in their content areas, rather than generalists who have to be able to teach all subjects. The rigorous instruction prepares students for higher level course work, especially important in math and science.

“Right now I have a classroom with students at a third-grade level in math and reading, and students at a ninth- or tenth-grade level in math and reading,” said Malmgren. “It is difficult for me, as one teacher, to teach such a huge range of learners. When the students move to middle school, they will be able to take classes that are specific to their needs.”

Sixth-grade students are also likely to become more engaged in school as they pursue subjects they are particularly interested in–electives such as engineering, journalism, and vocal and instrumental music.

“Middle school students attend elective classes daily, which allows them to explore a subject more deeply,” said Cascade Middle School Principal Diana Garcia. “In elementary school, they only get music and PE twice a week.”

In addition, families and students will have three full years to develop relationships with teachers and staff, providing consistency and predictability during a critical period in students’ lives.

Teacher Ellen Dorr believes sixth-grade students are ready for middle school.

Teacher Ellen Dorr believes sixth-grade students are ready for middle school.

“The fact that students will attend the school for another year means we can create a stronger sense of community with students,” said Dorr. “Seventh-grade students are more than ready for the transition to middle school. With smart work at both the elementary level and the middle school level, we can ensure that sixth-grade students finish elementary school ready to enter middle school.”

This spring, Highline will begin a year-long planning process with teachers and parents to design the sixth-grade program.

“This is an opportunity to reinvent the sixth-grade experience for our children and improve the entire middle school program,” said Superintendent Enfield.

Creative ideas for sixth grade were already being suggested at recent community meetings on the transition proposal. For instance, sixth grade could be designed as a self-contained program within middle schools. Camp Waskowitz could be a sixth-grade orientation and community-building experience in the fall.

In middle school, students will get a chance for a jump start at advanced coursework like world languages, algebra, and the sciences. They will benefit from greater exposure to the fine arts and leadership opportunities. And they will be challenged to develop the behaviors, attitudes, and habits they will need to succeed in high school and college.

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