Viewpoint

K-8 has been a failure for CMS students

Students at K-8 Thomasboro Academy prepare to walk home in 2012. Parents have expressed concerns about having younger and older students together at school.
Students at K-8 Thomasboro Academy prepare to walk home in 2012. Parents have expressed concerns about having younger and older students together at school. rlahser@charlotteobserver.com

In the fall of 2010, over community objections, the CMS Board of Education voted to close three westside middle schools and scatter their students among newly created K-8 schools (and preK-8).

Then-Superintendent Peter Gorman described the shift to K-8 schools as a way to save money, and to better meet the academic needs of struggling students.

Six years later, students at the schools continue to struggle. The shift has saved little if any money. Most troubling, it has become clear that students assigned to these K-8 schools do not have access to the same educational opportunities as their counterparts at the district’s traditional middle schools.

As Board of Education members consider a new pupil assignment plan, I urge them to dismantle the district’s non-magnet K-8 schools and eliminate non-magnet K-8 schools from future planning. Many K-8 parents and teachers voiced strong concerns about these schools, including: denying older students a true middle school experience; safety concerns for the younger children; and the gross lack of electives and extracurricular activities for the middle schoolers.

Traditional middle schools provide a wide range of experiences that allow adolescents to sample a variety of arts, languages, and sciences. The K-8 model limits those experiences. The relatively small number of sixth through eighth grade students at a K-8 means that classes only cover the basics.

Hence, students assigned to K-8 schools miss out on many other academic, athletic, and enrichment programs because the schools lack staff to create a choir, coach a team, or direct a play – let alone offer the multiple alternatives available at most traditional middle schools. The limited middle school opportunities available at non-magnet K-8s also make them far less attractive to families with the means to make other choices. Savvy parents avoid K-8 attendance zones or send their children to private or charter schools.

Despite repeated requests, CMS has failed to provide a comprehensive list of middle school course offerings for students at assigned K-8 schools. Therefore, parents cannot make informed choices and compare the educational opportunities available to their children with others. Anecdotally, I know that students at Bruns Academy have a choice of four electives: PE, band, Career Tech, and Spanish. Art for sixth and seventh graders was offered for the first time just this semester. There are no drama, debate, chorus, or other language options – all standard at most middle schools.

The K-8 structure also makes it more difficult to create diverse schools. The K-8 model presents a structural barrier in meeting the board’s Guiding Principles of Student Assignment – specifically, impeding the goal of reducing concentrations of poverty. The larger the grade span of a school, the smaller the attendance zone. Because a K-8 school’s attendance zone includes fewer neighborhoods than a traditional middle school, it is more difficult to create a diverse mix of students by bringing together students from a variety of different neighborhoods.

At the last board meeting, the superintendent asked board members to consider whether or not the K-8 model should be continued. I urge the Board of Education to abandon the K-8 model for assigned schools.

Sawyer is an education advocate who is a candidate for the District 4 seat on the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools Board of Education.

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