Wendy Alexander/The Madera Tribune
Construction continues on Matilda Torres High School. Madera Unified School District is facing a serious question in what grade of new schools will be created from the Measure M bond finances.
What should we do with students in their mid-teenage years? How can we best educate them?
What grade configuration is best for Madera kids — middle schools (grades 7 and 8) or K-8 schools (like MUSD’s country schools: Dixieland, Eastin-Arcola, Howard, and La Vina?
The question is important because MUSD is going to build three new schools from Measure M bond money, and their grade configuration has to be right for Madera.
I dropped in the other night on a workshop being conducted by MUSD trustees and their top administrators, the superintendent and his executive cabinet. They were having a discussion about this very thing. Let me hasten to emphasize the word discussion; they had not met to make any decisions, only to talk.
I hadn’t planned on staying long. I had just come from the dedication of the Ed Gwartney Center for California History at James Monroe School, so had the board. They were just a tired as I was — maybe more.
As it turned out, I sat there listening and taking notes for more than two hours, and I came away with two impressions.
First, I was impressed with the collaboration that was going on between these two groups — the board and the administration. In most districts things don’t often work that way. Usually the school board tells the staff what it needs to know, at least that’s how we did it on the school board of which I was a member.
What I saw on this particular evening in the MUSD boardroom, however, were seven board members, the superintendent, and seven or eight top administrators in pursuit of an answer to a question. What type of school is best for 7th and 8th graders?
The discussion was free and open. They talked about research. The shared experiences, and questioned some of the sacred cows in education. By about 8:30, in a meeting that had started at six o’clock, they wrapped it up but without drawing a definite conclusion.
So, I was impressed with the collaborative efforts of those in charge of the school district. The second thing that struck me was some of the results of their research on grade level configuration.
Let me hasten to inject here that nobody at Madera Unified is suggesting that the district’s three middle schools should be altered. From what was said, it is clear that MUSD is going to retain and reinvest in its middle schools, and there is plenty of research to support this position.
At the same time, however, there appears to be abundant research that suggests that K-8 schools are “gaining positive momentum” nationally, and that’s why the district leaders were comparing MUSD’s K-8 schools with its middle schools.
Several indicators suggest that the 7th and 8th grades in the country schools are outperforming Madera’s middle schools. Performance on the State’s annual tests in English and math show Madera’s K-8 schools scoring significantly higher than the middle schools.
In English, 44 percent of 7th graders in the K-8 schools met or exceeded the State’s expectation, and 32 percent of the middle school 7th graders met the standard. Among country school 8th graders, 40 percent made the mark, while 31 percent of the middle school 8th graders met the standard.
In 7th grade math, 36 percent reached the State benchmark in the K-8 schools, while only 18 percent made the mark in the middle schools.
Country school 8th graders out performed their middle school counterparts in math, 30 percent to 13 percent.
Likewise, in the district’s winter assessment in English and math, the K-8 schools outscored the middle schools.
While 7th graders in the middle schools and K-8 schools performed within one percentage point of each other in English, in the 8th grade it was a different story. Country school 8th graders outscored the middle school 8th graders 33 percent to 24 percent.
The same pattern continued in the district’s math assessment. Of the country school 7th graders, 19 percent passed the test, while 12 percent of the middle school math students made the grade.
In the 8th grade comparison, the math performance mirrored the scores in English. In the K-8 schools, 28 percent passed, while 13 percent of the middle school 8th graders passed.
Factors other than test scores also showed the country schools doing better than the city schools. Attendance rates, suspension rates, and student survey results all favored the K-8 schools over the middle schools.
While the school board drew no public conclusions, it is clear that the administration is recommending two things.
First the Superintendent’s Executive Cabinet is recommending that the district continue to recognize the value of its middle schools and reinvest in them.
Second, the administration is also recommending that the two new elementary schools to be built from Measure M money be K-8 schools.
The bottom line of this two-part recommendation is that such an arrangement will “represent a highly attractive if not absolutely essential family choice...” for Madera’s families. It also appears to be educationally sound.
In the light of last Thursday’s collaborative discussion, it sure makes sense. Collaboration has a way of doing that.