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Friday, May 6, 2016

Grade-alike talks don't have to polarize the community

Saturday, November 12, 2011

For the third time in 11 years, the question of whether Spencer should restructure its public elementary buildings has reared its head.

It's an emotional issue because it involves our children, and requires us to trust the officials we've elected to do what's right on their behalf.

But, the local discussion doesn't have to be polarizing.

Instead, I propose it turn into an open, community-wide conversation about what should be done and how the public educational system can better serve our youth.

An attempt to accomplish this took place at three separate public meetings this past week. School officials believe grade-alike schools are best for the kids because it will create consistent curriculum and learning experiences, encourage more age-alike interactions and eliminate the chances of being reassigned to other buildings.

Committee members, asked to study Spencer's future with grade-alike elementary schools, plan to recommend such a move Tuesday, Nov. 22 to school board members. They see the value in the increased teacher collaboration and consistent leadership.

The Iowa Department of Education's 2010 Condition of Education report points out that, among Iowa's 351 public school districts, there are a couple dozen different building configurations. Some are similar to the grade-alike structure Spencer is considering.

Yet, the department has not researched this issue because, according to Staci Hupp, the IDOE communications director, it is a local decision.

Since Spencer's study committee was initiated this fall, district representatives have been touting the Algona and Webster City district moves to grade-alike.

Fairfield is another example.

Like Spencer, the southeastern Iowa town of 9,464 residents considered grade-alike elementary centers in 2006-07.

With one-sixth of its second through 11th grade children not performing to standards, "the current status quo" was unacceptable, Fairfield School Board President Terry Cochran said. But, after one year of study and review by a board-appointed committee, Fairfield school board members rejected a recommendation to go with grade-alike centers at the elementary level.

Like Spencer, Fairfield is a town proudly steeped in tradition. Its K-12 schools host about 1,750 students. Plagued by declining enrollment the past decade, the district moved all of its fifth-grade students to Fairfield Middle School in 2010. Over the last 15 years, Fairfield has also closed two of its five elementary buildings.

Although the district's elected leaders chose not to pursue the elementary restructuring recommended five years ago, today the district hosts kindergarten through fourth grade students in all three of its public elementary buildings. Fairfield fifth through eighth grade students are housed in the middle school.

Fairfield Curriculum Director Marci Dunlap, who worked as a high school teacher when the grade-alike concept was discussed in 2006-07, was among those who saw the issue divide her town. Dunlap knows wounds are still healing.

Like Hupp, Dunlap has witnessed how hard it is for district patrons to research a solution for the grade-alike question. Instead, she believes making the move toward restructuring is about educating a local community's residents regarding the delivery as it stands.

When Spencer district residents last considered going grade-alike, the board heard local residents' outcry, in the form of a petition signed by 1,145 individuals, and chose to keep the current elementary building alignment in place. Board member Dean Mechler suggested, at that time, the district implement nine recommendations aimed to giving all Spencer students the same educational experience.

According to Principal Lucas DeWitt, all of these, and more, have been accomplished to date. In turn, teachers are receiving the same professional development and training, and students are being provided more of the same educational opportunities.

This year's grade-alike discussion at the community level is different from the one that occurred five years ago. The matter was re-introduced because of a Dec. 10, letter signed by 58 teachers and support staff requesting the issue be revisited. The grade-alike discussion also returned because district officials are facing space and section issues in 2012-13.

Hopefully you shared your feelings, concerns or insights about transitioning to a grade-alike system at one of the three public meetings this past week. If not, I encourage you to make your opinion known.

Call, write or email a board member, the superintendent or an elementary administrator. Sign one of the petitions at Bomgaars or CarGo Express. Or, offer your thoughts on the "Spencer Grade Alike" page created on Facebook.

Whichever way you choose, please be respectful on this local issue. Let's make it a productive, open discussion.

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Kris Todd
Kris Todd