The pros and cons of K-8 schools

  • Posted on: 7 December 2007
  • By: Amanda Fritz

I didn't really have time to fit in a lunchtime meeting on Wednesday. The lack of posts here and elsewhere is because Tuesday night, my Neighborhood Association Board held a Special Meeting to review the Portland Bureau of Development Services' Staff Report on a 12 lot subdivision application. I recently stepped down as the land use chair after fifteen years, but both the new land use volunteer and the Neighborhood Association President live too close to the proposed development to be able to sort through the various conflicting values without being accused of personal bias. I've long committed to serving on this particular application... which has been in the pipeline for several years. I've spent most of the past two days engrossed in the five-inches-thick tome known as Title 33, happily tapping out the response agreed by consensus at our meeting. Happy because I love land use cases, where the rules are clear and it's a matter of detailing whether the application meets them or not. And because the level of agreement we reached at our meeting on Tuesday was unexpected, given that we were talking about change, development, and not getting everything everyone wanted. I'm submitting our memorandum this morning.

I took time out Wednesday lunchtime to attend the League of Women Voters of Portland's monthly meeting, at the Central Library. It was a panel discussion on the virtues and flaws of middle schools and/or schools teaching kindergarten through 8th grade. The speakers were Dennis Hartinger, eighth grade teacher at Roseway Heights School; Kimberley Campbell, Assistant Professor of Education, Lewis & Clark College in the Masters of Teaching program (where my son Luke hopes to be accepted - sadly, I didn't get a chance to put in a word for him after the meeting); Joan Miller, former principal and current Portland Public Schools (PPS) administrator as Coordinator of PK-8 Reconfiguration; and David Wynde, PPS School Board member. Each spoke for 15 minutes then took questions. Dennis firmly believes middle schools are better for more kids and teachers. Kim said the research evidence is mixed. Joan advocated for the k-8 approach, and David provided a reality check by reminding the audience the decisions to blend and close schools are at least in part due to budget constraints. It was an interesting session. Probably everyone in attendance (and it was a good turnout) had some preconceived beliefs validated. Middle schools allow more choices in electives, provide counselors, and draw teachers who truly want to specialize in early teenage education. K-8 reduces isolation of adolescents through ongoing relationships with staff they've known for years, as well as by contact with younger kids. The K-8 configuration can also help support keeping neighborhood elementary schools open, and allowing students to stay closer to home for middle school.

The comments of district administrators sounded to me like the spiels Steve and I heard as parents of grade school children in the early 1990s -- perhaps the darkest days of budget/staff cutting in the aftermath of Measure 5 passing. Then, administrators spent most of the time at parent meetings trying to convince families that "blended classrooms" are good for kids. Blended classrooms are where two or more grade levels are taught together. We experienced one or more of our children being the lower and upper halves of 1st-2nd grade blends, and 3rd-4th, and 4th-5th. While the blends may have helped them socially, in some ways, I don't believe the assurances we were told that they would not affect academic progress held true. And frankly, I would have preferred being treated as an adult, and rather than being told the blends were chosen for academic success, the administration should have said clearly, "We have to do this for budget reasons."

This year is the first year in 17 years of being a Portland Public Schools parent that I haven't had to worry about cuts as we started school in September. We're not out of the woods yet, by any means. The article in Wednesday's Willamette Week about underfunding and underfstaffing the Young Mens Academy at Jefferson is but the latest reminder of that. As David Wynde said, money isn't the only factor making good schools, but it is one factor. One of the primary reasons for moving to k-8 configurations is budgetary, and I think it would be helpful if we all agree on that, and change the focus to how to make it work best. Endless discussion of whether 8th graders are good influences on kindergarteners and vice versa, or not, wastes precious time and energy if the decision on grade configurations is really already determined by economics.


I don't know about the pros and cons, but K-8 seemed to work well when I was in the PPS system. Dave Lister

I got to see the differences of K-8 v. middle school up close and personal back in the late 1970s in the PPS. I was at then Kellogg elementary school as it transitioned into Kellogg Middle School (on a side note, sadly they closed Kellogg altogether this year). It was nice being in the K-8 environment with my two older sisters (3 and 4 years older) there to help (and/or tease) me. But as we transitioned into middle school, we did get far more educational options than what my sisters had received. For example, our band was huge and our science facilities and options greatly increased. Just from my own personal experience, I'd lean toward a middle school system. But as Dave pointed out, K-8 does also work. My sisters turned out just fine. And, as Amanda points out, if it is a matter of budgetary reasons, and not just academics, then K-8 may be the option needed.

Thanks for both of your perspectives. This change has me somewhat anxious as the parent of a third grader at a small SE elementary school (Lewis) that is working very well at present, in general and for my daughter. I believe it works well in part because it is relatively small, which gives the principal scope for engaged leadership & contributes to strong teacher & parent morale. Taken together these convey to the kids that they matter and that school matters. Paradoxically, this effective size puts Lewis close to the front of the line for potential closure. I survived a grossly overcrowded junior high school (7th-9th grades) in suburban Boston. It was an excellent school system in ratings and subsequent student success, but I had the misfortune to be in the largest class that ever passed through the system (late baby boom). It was definitely the worst period of my school experience, & scarred me permanently. It has also shaped my view of kids in those years, and I am afraid of what mixing them in with younger kids may do to the latter. On balance I lean to thinking that the "isolation" of middle schoolers may be balanced by ability to focus on their particular needs. I greatly fear that younger students may be hurt by having to deal with the fallout of 6th-8th graders' struggles with early adolescence, which unfortunately can be quite vicious even in kids who ultimately work things out for themselves. Given my bad experience in a stand-alone jr. high, these comments may seem contradicory, but it is my belief the ultimate problem was crowding. I don't see how three grades will get added at Lewis without great crowding and elimination of spaces now used for some of the best features of the school that support primary classroom teaching (e.g. big library, music room, YMCA space for aftercare). At a time when we pay lip service to class size as a key to improving education, it seems horrendous that we just say "budget", look at small effective schools, decide they're somehow a problem, and close them. If the budget is really such a problem, we need to pay more for schools. If that's not possible so that cuts are needed, we should look to the school administration first, or administrators' salaries, not to cutting days (that still haven't been restored, the number of four day weekends is quite remarkable), closing schools that are working, or playing cheapskate with the janitorial staff that makes Lewis an inviting learning environment for my daughter. Chris

The budget really is a problem, still, and cuts since 1990 have already raked through the administration. Parents and other community experts helped with the scrutiny, and Portland Public Schools' administrative share is one of the lowest in the state, in fact needed positions like curriculum support are gone and missed. I agree that means we need to look for ways to pay for the education that society says it wants for our children. Your post brings back memories, Chris. About ten years ago, one of the rounds of cuts threatened to close both Markham, where my kids thrived, and Lewis. Instead of pointing the finger asking the School Board to "close them, not us", we Lewis and Markham parents advocated in solidarity to urge that successful small neighborhood schools be honored and stay open. The city still lost some great schools, but those two survived and continued to flourish.