Middle schools grapple with cuts

Posted: Wednesday, August 30, 2000

Adolescence is an awkward time for youngsters who find themselves not quite children anymore but not quite teens yet. When classes resumed last week, Kenai Peninsula schools for seventh- and eighth-graders found themselves similarly caught between middle school and junior high school.

The distinction runs deeper than a name and will affect students, teachers and parents, say the principals of affected schools.

"Now we are going to do the best we can with the resources we have," said Kenai Middle School Principal Paul Sorenson.

"This is not a cry wolf. This is real."

Here are some of the changes students and parents will notice:

n Larger class sizes -- Teachers will have about 20 percent more students and say, therefore, that they will have a harder time getting to know their students as individuals. Similarly, parents may experience more difficulty contacting or meeting with teachers.

n Fewer courses;

n Increased work load will mean that teachers will have fewer opportunities to help each other. There also will be fewer opportunities for teachers to coordinate interdisciplinary projects or avoid conflicts such as major assignments falling due at the same time.

n Schools will ask families for more support for after-school activities. Principals face the challenge of structuring the school day in the wake of budget cuts that forced them to lay off teachers. With fewer teachers, they lost the flexibility and preparation time that were key to the team teaching underlying middle school.

Back in May, Soldotna Middle School Principal Lee Young pondered his color-coded staffing chart and tried to make the new pieces fit after losing 4.5 teaching positions.

"It's just not mathematically possible," he concluded.

The Kenai Peninsula Borough School District gradually converted its junior high schools into middle schools in the early 1990s. The purpose of the change was to give students more personalized attention and a smoother transition between the nurturing classrooms of elementary school and the self-sufficiency of high school.

But last year, when the district tried to balance its budget, staffing levels at middle schools were cut.

The principals view the loss of the teaching teams as a step backward.

"I think it was more effective with a team. Teachers had structured time to sit down and collaborate. That is novel," explained Mark Leal, the former principal of Homer Middle School, who now works as the assessment director for the district.

"I don't really believe that, as a district, we will abandon the middle school concept," he said. "I don't believe we are going back to a junior high. The middle school philosophy is still going to be there. It's just going to be harder to implement.

"I felt a lot of support (for middle school) from the (school) board. But money got in the way."

Sorenson described the school year now beginning as one of transition. The principals are trying to salvage the best of the middle school ideas within their financial constraints, he said.

Seward Middle School Principal Malcolm Fleming predicted that teaching teams would gradually fade away without the restoration of resources.

"I am a very strong supporter of the middle school concept," he said. "I'm hoping for a miracle."

Despite their concern, the principals cited some good news.

The district has some federal grant funding to hire reading tutors. The schools plan to use grants and other resources to try to plug holes in staffing as much as possible.

"The timing is good," Young said.

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