Manatee School Board considers elementary, middle combo classrooms

eearl@bradenton.comDecember 11, 2013 

MANATEE -- The Manatee County School Board is reconsidering the way students take middle-school classes.

Cynthia Saunders, executive director of middle schools, presented the idea Tuesday at the Manatee County School Board workshop of possibly adding middle-school coursework for elementary-school students.

Myakka and Tara elementary schools already offer sixth-grade classes, and Palm View Elementary offers sixth- and seventh-grade classes.

Saunders suggests the school board explore the possibility of adding seventh-grade coursework at Myakka and Tara and eighth-grade coursework at Palm View, and eventually make middle-school credit available to more elementary schools.

School board members said it may be too soon to implement the advanced classes. The primary hurdle involves district finances.

Seventh- and eighth-grade teachers are considered secondary instructors who require different certification from those teachers in kindergarten through sixth grade.

Saunders said it is unrealistic for one teacher to hold all necessary certifications required of teachers beyond the sixth grade. A middle-school program requires a certified language arts teacher, a teacher certified in different types of math and a social studies teacher, even if only for a handful of students.

Myakka Elementary has 14 students enrolled in sixth grade. Thirty students are enrolled in sixth grade at Tara Elementary, and 62 students are enrolled in sixth and seventh grades at Palm View Elementary.

Schools would have to be staffed appropriately. School board members said it may be unrealistic to hire teachers with those certifications at a time when district finances are still in the red.

If the obstacles could be overcome, the proposed middle and elementary school hybrid programs would allow students to choose any middle school where seats are available.

School board vice chairman Dave "Watchdog" Miner said the significant hiring expense could be something the district can't afford.

Diana Greene, deputy superintendent of instruction, said several middle schools, including King, Nolan and Haille, are already almost full and close to overcrowding.

School board member Bob Gause said a hybrid program can be beneficial but implementing more elementary school classes now would not be fiscally responsible.

"We can't afford to have seventh- and eighth-grade teachers without students in the classroom," Gause said.

He said, however, he is not opposed to the concept.

"The sixth grade is a difficult, transitional year. It is better for some students to stay at the top of their elementary school instead of the bottom of the middle school," Gause said. "As an opportunity, it has some real potential benefits and could even help with overcrowded middle schools."

Miner said traditional middle school is the way to go for most students.

"If children are kept in elementary school, they are not having the opportunity to participate in middle-school programs," Miner said. "It is limiting, and it may be something we might want to discontinue."

The workshop topic was not a school board meeting agenda item, and no decision was made.

School board member Barbara Harvey said she would like to speak with sixth- and seventh-grade parents and students in the program at Myakka, Tara or Palm View elementary schools.

"Was this a value to their student? We need to know how it worked for them," Harvey said.

Saunders said there is a tight timeline on deciding whether to expand the program next year. The district school fair is in January. School choice also opens next month.

"We need to move forward soon with letting parents know their options," Saunders said.

A school board workshop is planned in January, although an exact date has not been announced on the district website yet.

Erica Earl, education reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7081.

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