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School interrupted

When students change schools, they're affected academically and socially.
In Columbia, that happens three times.
Sunday, January 7, 2007 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 2:48 a.m. CDT, Sunday, July 20, 2008

The bell rings, and Josh Harvey walks into Room 139. He sits in the second desk in the third row during his seventh class of the day at Hickman High School, the fourth Columbia school he has attended.

Along with 24 other students in teacher Brett Kirkpatrick’s English class, Harvey turns to talk with friends about his weekend. Other students laugh and tell animated stories to their pals. It’s almost as if they’ve come to school to hang out with friends. They are all new blood at Hickman, the latest bunch of 10th-graders, the bottom of the totem pole.

They have finally made the last of three school changes — the one from junior high to high school.

That’s one too many, said MU emeritus professor John Alspaugh, who has studied the effects of such “transitions” on children. “Any time you have a transition, (in) the year of the transition there will always be a sharp drop in achievement,” said Alspaugh, whose research on the subject has been published in national education journals since 1995.

Whether the Columbia Public School District has too many transitions has dominated recent discussions among community members, parents, teachers and other district employees. At forums in October, the Community Engagement Task Force, which is helping the district plan for the coming decade, asked participants about transitions. Survey results show the community seems to agree with Alspaugh: about 50 percent of the 1,027 survey participants think it is important to limit the number of K-12 transitions, while almost 39 percent think it is “somewhat important.”

Right now, Columbia’s 17,000 or so public school students go through three transitions — that is, they attend four schools: elementary, which is kindergarten through fifth grade; middle, for sixth and seventh grades; junior high, for eighth and ninth grades; and high school, for 10th through 12th grades.

The hardest of these, Alspaugh said, is that last leap from junior high to high school. “If there is going to be any change in transitions, this should be it,” said Alspaugh, who has followed districtwide discussions but has not been formally involved. Students are too old to make that last switch easily, he said, and they feel the cumulative effect of their previous school moves.

Moving toward change

In December, the Columbia School Board took a step toward significant change when it approved a reconfiguration of grades, which would drop the number of transitions to two and the number of schools students attend to three. Students would be grouped kindergarten through fifth grade, sixth through eighth grades and ninth through 12th grades. The grouping was the most popular among participants in the fall survey, and, in approving it, the board followed the recommendation of the district’s Long-range Facilities Planning Committee. The committee’s job has been to evaluate the state of district schools, how they’re used and whether they meet student needs.

MU education professor Jerry Valentine, director of the Middle Level Leadership Center at MU, which looks at middle school and junior high education, said the configuration is a good choice because it groups grades that are more alike.

“There is a natural break between eighth and ninth grade,” Valentine said.

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Brett Kirkpatrick teaches English at Hickman High School. Some of his 10th-graders, including Katie Armstrong, right, say his class is one of their favorites. “The teacher is really cool,” Tonisha Jones says. Some students enjoy school more if they enjoy their teachers, says MU emeritus professor John Alspaugh. (Adam Wisneski/Missourian)

But before schools can be reshaped, voters must OK a $60 million bond issue that the district intends to put on the April 3 ballot, said Lynn Barnett, assistant superintendent of student support services. The school board approved the bond issue at the same meeting it approved the change in configuration and the resulting decrease in transitions for students.

The school board tentatively plans to also present bond issues on the 2011 and 2013 ballots for $60 million each, although each would again require board approval at the time, Barnett said. The total of the three bond issues, $180 million, would be used to build a high school and two elementary schools, as well as fix other facilities problems.

Barnett said the district decided about 10 years ago on the current grade configuration, based on funding and growth. But now, with some district schools facing overcrowding and an overuse of trailer classrooms that an education consultant hired by the district has deemed a hindrance to learning, new buildings are a priority.

“Right now, neither of the high schools could hold ninth-graders,” Superintendent Phyllis Chase said.

Jacque Cowherd, deputy superintendent for administration, agreed and said there are several pieces that need to come together before a reconfiguration. He said the district would speak with parents, students and teachers about what is best for the students and how to accommodate their needs if, in fact, the configuration changes. He said the issue first comes down to finances.

“This will not happen without a bond issue,” Cowherd said.

Putting the pieces together

Wanda Brown, assistant superintendent of secondary education for the district, said that in the event of a grade-grouping change, programs would be put in place to make sure ninth-graders and high school teachers are prepared for the new experience of a four-year high school.

“We would do everything to support the ninth-graders and nurture them in their new environment,” Brown said.

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Tonisha Jones, right, looks on as students interact in English class. She has a group of friends who eat lunch with her, but they have different schedules. “I wish I had friends in all my classes,” she says. (Adam Wisneski/Missourian)

A re-examination of curriculum would also be appropriate, said Cheryl Cozette, assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction. “The curriculum would fit the new program and would be changed to fit students’ needs,” she said.

Chase said it would be critical to make sure a reconfiguration would not disrupt current students. “We would not want to cause more transitions for (them),” Chase said.

Implementing the new configuration would take several years, Barnett said, and current fifth- and sixth-graders would most likely be the first to experience a four-year high school. She said that if the bond issue is not approved, the board will have to come up with a new solution because it will not be possible to change the configuration without more space.

Keeping students connected

The heart of the concern about too many transitions is the academic success of students, with the goal of keeping students in school and engaged in their classes. Changing schools interrupts their connections to school and, hence, to learning. Alspaugh found that transitions around 10th grade lead to the highest dropout rate, often because of social problems. In looking at Missouri districts, he found that those with the best achievement percentages and the lowest high school dropout rates had elementary schools for kindergarten through sixth grade and high schools from seventh through 12th grades.

Said Valentine: “Many students do take an academic and social hit every time they transition.”

The experts agree on three factors in particular that help lessen the effects of transitions: friends, activities and educational programming — a broad term for any program a school puts in place to cater to its unique student body.

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Katie Armstrong is involved at Hickman High School as a violist in the orchestra and as a member of The Reading Club. (ROBIN HOECKER/Missourian)

The Columbia district embraces a “cluster concept,” which keeps the same kids together through transitions. Students from one elementary school go to the same middle school and then on to the same junior high, Brown said. Clustering mostly ends there, when the student bodies at each of the city’s three public junior highs funnel into either Hickman or Rock Bridge; sometimes friends stay together, sometimes they don’t.

The friend factor

Hickman 10th-graders Katie Armstrong and Tonisha Jones said it’s easier to catch up with friends at school than it is at home because their Internet connections are slow and they don’t like talking on the phone.

“I like being able to get away from the house and hang with friends at school,” Armstrong said.

Jones said she likes being able to have lunch with her friends, but, she added, “I wish I had friends in all my classes.”

Armstrong, Jones and classmate Josh Harvey agree that part of the reason they come to school is to be with friends.

As Alspaugh said, “School is the social place to be.”

Harvey said he made friends with people who went to Shepard Boulevard Elementary School and played sports with him. And although Harvey said he has made many new friends from his recent school experiences, the group he met when he was younger is still his core group of buddies.

Armstrong said she’s met new people but enjoys hanging out with friends she made in junior high and wishes she had class with them.

Having just made that final transition from junior high to high school, Armstrong, Jones and Harvey said they didn’t think changing schools was too bad. Harvey said most of his good friends went to each school with him until he went to high school, when a few of them went to Rock Bridge. He said that because his friends went with him, changing schools was easy.

“The only tough part was having new teachers and new policies at each school,” Harvey said.

Armstrong moved to Columbia from Stillwater, Okla., in eighth grade and said going to Oakland Junior High School as a new student was easy because in eighth grade, everyone was new. The switch to Hickman wasn’t hard, either. “High school is like junior high,” she said. “Just bigger.”

The role of the schools

Alspaugh said his research found that in addition to the friendship factor, school activities are a strong motivator in keeping students connected to the classroom. Harvey, who is on the track and football teams at Hickman, said he enjoys the elective classes and extracurricular activities. Armstrong is also involved at Hickman as a violist in the orchestra and as a member of The Reading Club.

Just as ties with friends and activities help students get over the hump of changing schools and keep them on track, so, too, do educational programs tailored to the school, Valentine said. “The grade patterns are not as critical as the programs you put into the schools,” he said.

For example, Valentine said, districts with middle and junior high schools with interdisciplinary teams seem to help ease transitions for their students. In an interdisciplinary team, four or five teachers, each skilled in a content area, are responsible for about 100 kids, Valentine said. These students are broken into groups of about 20 and cycle among the teachers.

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Josh Harvey, left, and Chris Tran lift weights during a strength training class at Hickman. Harvey, who is on the school’s track and football teams, said sports have helped him retain friends while changing schools. (Steve Bartel/Missourian

“Those kids have better achievement, better attitudes toward school and are better at socializing,” Valentine said.

He said the schools need to make sure the programs they have fit their school and students.

Changing the configuration so that sixth- through eighth-graders are in the same building helps to specialize the educational programming to those students, Valentine said. “Those grades are the most similar during adolescent years,” he said. “Grouping them together gives the students a better education — academically, socially and emotionally.”

Valentine said teachers should teach to the particular needs of the group of students in front of them.

Alspaugh said many students enjoy school and their subjects more if they enjoy their teachers.

For example, Jones and Armstrong both said English was one of their favorite classes. “The teacher is really cool,” Jones said.

The students’ perspective

Jones, Harvey and Armstrong pointed out that despite the number of times they’ve switched to a new school, had new teachers and had to make new friends, one big factor has kept them in school: goals. Although they said they do often come to school to hang out with friends, they said that what really gets them out of bed in the morning is their future.

“Since I can remember, I have always wanted to be an (obstetrics) doctor,” Jones said. “I am going to be in school a long time.”

Her face lit up as she talked about what she knows of the profession and her hope to deliver babies. She joked that she watches the cable show “A Baby Story” so much, she could probably deliver a baby right now.

Armstrong said she plans to continue her education. “If you want a good job, you have to go to college,” she said. “To go to college, I need to pay or get a scholarship.”

Harvey put it most simply when he said you can’t do very much without graduating from high school.

“You have to do the hard stuff and the stuff you don’t like,” he said, “to move on to the enjoyable stuff.”

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