The pros and cons of K-to-8

By Laura Shovan

Every morning at Cradlerock School in Columbia, 900 children enter the building. Unlike most schools, though, these children range in age from 4 to 14.
“You have a 14-year-old and a 4-year-old coming in the same door, you want to make sure the 14-year-old is demonstrating appropriate behavior,” says Jason McCoy, the school’s principal.
Cradlerock is the only elementary/middle school in Howard County, but the combined model is gaining popularity in the Baltimore region. For McCoy, working with students from kindergarten through eighth grade means “really making sure that it’s safe and nurturing for everyone.”

Elementary/middle schools include all grades—kindergarten through eight—in one building served by a single principal. The upper and lower grades can be kept separate, or they can work cooperatively through mentoring and buddy programs. The k-to-8 model is attractive in part because it helps schools cope with the challenge of bringing adolescents from separate neighborhoods together for middle school.

Dr. Mariale Hardiman is assistant dean for the Urban Schools Partnership and chair of the Department of Interdisciplinary Studies at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Education. She worked in the Baltimore City school system for more than 30 years—many of those as principal of Roland Park Elementary/Middle School.
Hardiman points out, “Putting large groups of kids together can be difficult. So parents, for safety reasons, didn’t want their children leaving smaller, protected elementary schools” and going into larger middle schools.
At an elementary/middle school, “these are children who have built a rapport, so a lot of the turf battle, if you will, is not there,” adds Hardiman.

Some schools choose the combined model out of necessity. Private schools for special needs often lack the enrollment to survive as stand-alone elementary or middle schools.
Parochial schools often include grades kindergarten through eight, too. Typically, upper and lower grades at these schools are in separate buildings or separate areas of the same facility. However, opportunities for younger and older children to interact foster the family atmosphere common among elementary/middle schools.

Not All the Same
Roland Park is one of three elementary/middle schools in Baltimore City. It differs somewhat from typical k-to-8 schools because the upper grades operate more like a traditional middle school. It draws students from other elementary schools and has a magnet program to attract children from outside the neighborhood.
The elementary/middle school model is “really almost the best of both [worlds],” says Hardiman. Because only a quarter of the middle schoolers at Roland Park attended the school’s elementary grades, “You still have a different energy in the middle school” because of new students coming in, she observes.

At Cradlerock, about 50 percent of sixth, seventh, and eighth graders attended the school for elementary.
McCoy talks to his graduating fifth graders about setting the tone for the new children who will be coming in: “You guys are going to be the role models. You know the ins and outs of our school. You know the administration.”
“We’re putting them in that leadership role,” he says.
A typical k-to-8 school, on the other hand, keeps the same population of children throughout. This makes grades six, seven, and eight smaller than traditional middle school classes.
Andrea Hancock is the incoming principal at Arundel Elementary/Middle School in Baltimore. Hancock says the k-to-8 model often means that there are “brothers and sisters, cousins right there in the building, so they have that support” of family.

That sense of community extends beyond the children. “Parents have a chance to get to know each other on a more personal level, as well as the staff, having those 10 years” in one school,” says Hancock.
Those 10 years also insure a seamless transition from elementary to middle school.
In particular, this can benefit children with special needs. Hancock says staff members at the school know their needs and if they have a question about a child’s IEP, the teacher “can just go over to the next classroom without having to make that phone call.”

Sister Catherine Phelps has been principal of Trinity School in Ellicott City for nearly 40 years. The parochial school has grades kindergarten through eight, a model that Phelps thinks aids curriculum planning. Upper grade staff know what their pupils have already studied, and educators working with lower grades have an endpoint to reach for. “Teachers are aware of what students have had in the foundational years and they build on that,” Phelps says. “We are aware of what’s going on at every grade level.”

Gender Gap as Asset
One of the greatest benefits of the k-to-8 model is the interaction between older and younger students. Most combined schools have mentoring, buddy, or big brother and sister programs to support positive relationships between their two populations.
“Some of our mature older students… they’ve gone in first thing in the morning to help out the teacher, help the kids get unpacked, get them settled in their seats, get started on activities,” says Beth Maahs-Hoagberg, head of admissions, founder, and an educational director at the Highlands School in Harford County, which serves children with learning disabilities, focusing on remediation and preparation to reenter traditional public or private schools.

The Highlands School also uses older students as safety guards, helping younger pupils navigate pick-up time. Such programs help the self-esteem of her older students, and the younger children love having “the big peer to look up to,” says Maahs-Hoagberg.
Trinity plans activities to foster that relationship. During inclement weather, eighth graders spend indoor recess with younger students.

“They are very helpful, and the children love them coming,” Phelps says. “They also feel that they are the senior class in the school and they take pride in taking that responsibility.”
Cradlerock also makes the most of its age gap. McCoy remembers a seventh-grade home economics class inviting preschoolers to sample their homemade pizza. He encourages teachers to come up with cooperative lessons and activities where separate grades work together.
“That’s very powerful from a professional development standpoint,” says Phelps.

Is There a Downside?
There are, however, some disadvantages to elementary/middle schools.
Parents of the youngest students often are concerned about their children attending the same school as teenagers. McCoy says that some of his kindergarten parents need to be reassured that their children won’t be sharing the hallways with eighth graders.
In addition, while the idea of smaller classes for grades six, seven, and eight is often viewed as a positive, keeping students together in a k-to-8 school can tend to limit the students’ opportunities to meet peers from outside their immediate neighborhood.

Serving a smaller group of children also can mean limiting the elective and art classes offered in middle school. Hancock says that, with fewer than 300 students at her school of whom only 81 are middle schoolers, some typical middle school resources aren’t available.
For example, up until recently, Arundel Elementary/Middle did not offer foreign language classes. But, while the school now offers one foreign language class, students in other middle schools can choose among a handful of languages.

As another example, a general math teacher works with the students who might, in a larger school, have a specialized teacher for topics such as algebra or geometry.
“They don’t have as many elective subjects, and then the kids don’t have the benefit of the wide array” of choices, says Hardiman.

She also points out that clubs and sports offered to the middle schoolers can suffer.
“You do lose some of the energy that larger environments create—the sports teams, the national academic league, the after-school clubs, or student government.”
Larger middle schools, such as Roland Park, do offer languages, theater, and instrumental and vocal music. But, Hardiman adds, smaller schools can find creative ways to make sure their students are not short-changed.
“One solution is to network the k-to-8s so they can share some of those resources” with a group of schools, she says.

Ideally, the middle school grades should prepare children for high school life, but also meet the emotional and developmental needs of pre-teens.
Phelps says, in the elementary/middle school model, “We do meet those differences [between age groups] and, yet, we retain the whole-family concept.” BC
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© Baltimore’s Child Inc. August 2007

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