World Cafe participants discuss intermediate school programming

Thursday, April 7, 2011 | 10:33 p.m. CDT; updated 12:48 a.m. CDT, Friday, April 8, 2011

COLUMBIA — Columbia Public Schools officials are engaging community members to hash out the planning and programming of grades six through eight.

Once Muriel Williams Battle High School opens in the fall of 2013, the district will transition from middle schools and junior highs, containing sixth and seventh grades and eighth and ninth grades respectively, to intermediate schools that house grades six through eight. Ninth-graders will go on to high school.

The new system will require different programming from what currently is in place, so the district is holding World Cafes, or community discussions, to get feedback about what residents think is most important in the process. The first was held Thursday at Paxton Keeley Elementary School.

The question of how to combine the best parts of middle and junior high school is central to the goal of the World Cafes. The Intermediate Steering Committee spearheaded the planning for initial drafts and created five areas that need to be considered for future programming changes and development. They are:

  • Parent and community involvement,
  • Prevention and support programs for students,
  • Organization and implementation of extra-curricular activities and athletics,
  • Design and structure of core classes, including math, science, language arts and social studies,
  • Design and structure of noncore areas such as electives and physical education.

Of the topics addressed in each area, parent involvement, an advisory period and class structure for core and noncore classes were most heavily focused on.

A concern already prevalent in the district is that parental involvement in middle and junior high schools drops off significantly, especially because the schools turn over half their populations each year, Assistant Superintendent for Secondary Education Wanda Brown said.

"Once they get in the door, they have to leave the next year," she said.

Lange Middle School Principal Bernard Solomon and district spokeswoman Michelle Baumstark suggested the district look at both traditional and nontraditional ways of having parents involved. Solomon said oftentimes students "tend to desire that parents aren't right there with them. They are caught in the middle, trying to figure out if it's cool or not, or if (their parents) are going to embarrass them or not."

Baumstark said suggestions included webinars or webcasts that would allow parents to interact from home and more involvement in online monitoring of grades and using e-mail and online tools to communicate with teachers.

Another new feature that will be introduced into intermediate school classrooms is a 20-minute advisory period at the beginning of each day. During that time, 15 to 18 students from all three grades would be assigned a teacher and engage in both structured and unstructured curriculum about school expectations, problem solving and building and community issues.

West Junior High School Principal Sandra Logan said the advisory periods she observed in other schools "created a family. (The teacher) truly was an adult advocate. The students knew that that adult would be an advocate for them."

The advisory period will not infringe on instructional time during the day or take away from other class periods. Students will have the opportunity to learn from older students and gain role models as they transition through intermediate school to high school, Logan said.

The biggest hurdle the committee has to plan for is the structure of academic and elective classes. Students in each grade will be on teams, which allow them to stay with one group for academic classes throughout the day. Each team will have one teacher from the four different core areas. Differences from the current structure include the combination of two 45-minute reading and writing periods into one 60-minute language arts period.

John Horton, a writing teacher at Lange Middle School, is concerned that losing the 30 minutes of reading and writing will negatively affect students struggling with the subjects.

"Basically, I am just concerned that the expectations for teaching our kids to read and write are not going to decrease, but the time we have to teach those skills will decrease," Horton said.

Committee member and Smithton Middle School Principal Jean Selby said students would have extra instructional time during the day if they were two or more years behind grade level in any subject and would possibly be required to attend summer school.

Michael Jurczyk, father of a fifth- and a seventh-grader in the district, said he is not satisfied with the current elective program in schools.

"One of my major suggestions is to de-emphasize band and orchestra and put more emphasis on technology and foreign language," he said.

Jurczyk, who is from Germany, said compared to the German system, seventh-graders are already losing ground in math and science. He said the schools could catch up by offering more honors courses earlier on, instead of just advanced math classes offered to sixth- and seventh-graders.

Committee member and Gentry Middle School Principal Janice Morris said the committee wants to emphasize allowing students to explore different areas of fine arts, practical arts and performing arts. She said students should be able to try electives in many different areas so they are exposed to the subject before they reject it.

There will be two more World Cafes. The first will be from 6 to 8 p.m. Tuesday at Mill Creek Elementary School, and the second will be from 6 to 8 p.m. Wednesday at Derby Ridge Elementary School.

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