It started as a way to ease the overcrowding at a Visalia middle school, but the idea of offering students the option of attending a kindergarten through 8th grade (K-8) school is gaining popularity among students, parents and teachers.
The Visalia Unified School District Board of Directors voted unanimously at its December 9 meeting to not only continue the K-8 program at Oak Grove and Willow Glen elementary schools for the 2015-16 school year, but to explore the possibility of transitioning a current K-6 school on the east side of the city.
When the idea of adding 7th and 8th grades to two K-6 schools was suggested two years ago, meetings were held to present the K-8 proposal to parents.
“We realized that there are some parents who had an interest in K-8,” said VUSD Assistant Superintendent Doug Bartsch. “The parents had a lot of questions. ‘Would we be able to prepare kids completely for high school?’
“We knew we wouldn’t be able to replicate all the programs of middle school,” he added. “Green Acres has a pretty amazing musical theater program, and afterschool sports.”
Parents were also concerned about their children’s opportunities to go out for sports, and if they would be able to play music at school. “Other parents then started saying that they understood it was a work in progress,” said Bartsch, “or, ‘We love our school and if there was a 7th grade, we’d like to have our child continue.’ Some weeks later, we did a preliminary registration.”
Registration was opened for two 7th grade classes at Oak Grove and one at Willow Glen. Both schools opened their 7th grade classes at the beginning of the 2013-14 school year.
“Originally, it was to help alleviate the numbers at Green Acres Middle School that were in excess of 1,300,” said Tammy Milligan, principal of Willow Glen School, “but when we started in on the program, we found it had much more benefit.
“Kids have an opportunity to delve into a topic of interest to them,” she said, adding that the six-week sessions Willow Glen offers its 7th and 8th grade students include such topics as Hawaiian culture, Italy, sign language, theater (which includes presenting a play), newspapers, history of rock’n’roll and art history. “We even have a hip-hop dance class this next semester. And ‘Lego Math’ will reinforce some math concepts. We had gardening last semester and they built gardens all over campus.”
Willow Glen also has a sports program that includes football, volleyball and soccer.
Some parents still prefer the middle school system as a way for their children to prepare for the transition to high school, said Milligan. “That’s what some parents think and that’s why it’s an option.”
“This isn’t about eliminating a program that has many successes,” said Bartsch. “It’s about providing an alternative.”
“I’m actually very pleased that we’re offering different options for parents and kids,” said VUSD Superintendent Craig Wheaton. “K-8 offers a different environment than a middle school. I’m happy that parents have the opportunity to weigh the choices.”
A survey of 6th graders at Oak Grove and Willow Glen was conducted to see if they wanted to continue at their respective school or go to Green Acres Middle School. About two-thirds of Oak Grove students and half of Willow Glen students wanted to stay at their schools for 7th grade.
“Unless everyone in our community wants a K-8 school, we will continue to offer middle school because there are advantages to that,” Wheaton added. “I don’t want anyone to be boxed into one or the other.”
The main challenge of the K-8 system for educators is logistics, according to John Davis, principal of Oak Grove School. “A K-8 is much more complicated.” He said that adding sports and leadership programs was necessary to meet the needs of adolescent students. “The campus is an increasingly busy place.
“I’m sold on it as being a fantastic model for kids,” he said. “We watch fantastic things happening to our kids academically and socially. The research really leans toward K-8 being a better model for kids.”
He noted that the school staff has known some of their students for almost nine years, allowing the school to build strong relationship with its students and their families. “Our parents’ feedback has encouraged us to keep up with the program.
“Our whole staff from kindergarten through 8th grade have been behind this change and that’s what made it work,” Davis continued. “When there’s a soccer game, it’s not uncommon for the teachers of the younger grades to bring the children. The K-8 has brought a vibrancy to this campus.”
“It’s going great,” said Cindy Jacobsen, 7th grade teacher at Willow Glen. “This is my 37th year of teaching and this is my favorite thing that I’ve ever done.
“It offers a choice and choices are always good,” said Jacobsen, who was asked about the challenges of creating and running a K-8 school.
“Every time you start something new, it’s a challenge,” she said, “but every challenge we’ve encountered, we’ve been able to meet.
“We have happy kids,” said Jacobsen. “They are motivated. They work hard. They participate. What I see is that everyone gets to participate, Nobody disappears, because we are small.”
And the parents?
“I think they understand we’re creating something,” Jacobsen said. “I think what they really like is that in addition to a full academic program, we added sports.”
When asked if the K-8 system was viable in Visalia, Jacobsen responded, “Absolutely. We know it’s viable because there are other K-8 systems all over the place and it’s backed by research.” She noted the Harvard School Research Study on the K-8 system.
“Our older students are contributing to our school in ways the younger students can’t,” said Davis. “We provide opportunities for our 7th and 8th grade students to volunteer and help in the kindergarten classroom and with the 1st grade students. They are recognized as models. In many cases, the 1st and 2nd grade students are their siblings.”
“She’s been there since kindergarten and our school is amazing,” said Martha Valencia about why she chose the K-8 system at Willow Glen for her 7th grade daughter. “I wanted her to have a small class setting. For me, I think it’s the best for all children.”
Valencia, who also works at Willow Glen, didn’t see any extra challenges for students in that system but did acknowledge that there were less friends and activities there than in a middle school. “They still have sports and they have PE every day,” she added. “I think she’s not missing anything.”
“Some parents really want us to open a K-8 on the east side,” said Wheaton, adding that the board would discuss a possible new K-8 school at a planning session later this month.
“There isn’t a specific site the board has identified yet,” said Bartsch. “We know we have the green light to look for a site.” He added that the site would most likely be on the east side of town. “Whether it’s northeast or southeast, we don’t know yet. What we hope is by the first meeting in February to be presenting to the board our recommendation.”
The next step would be to have meetings for parents and students.
“We’ll only proceed if there are enough students and parents interested,” he added. “If there isn’t, it won’t happen.”