Parents invited to learn details of sixth grade move

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TOWNSHEND — Parents are invited to a meeting to discuss the controversial relocation of sixth graders to Leland & Gray Union Middle and High School next year.

"I just think change is hard and people take time to adjust to it," said Bob Thibault, principal at Leland & Gray.

A meeting at the school at 5:30 p.m. Thursday will see Thibault presenting the plan during the first half. Then, principals from the elementary schools of Jamaica, Townshend, and NewBrook, where Newfane and Brookline students attend, will discuss with parents changes specific to their buildings.

The West River Modified Union Education District board approved the change in an initial vote last month then again last week when parents opposing the move brought a petition seeking reconsideration.

"We've been charged now with what the board has voted to do," said Thibault, who was part of a team asked to look at the benefits and challenges of moving sixth graders to his building. "We're going to try to create the smoothest transition we can create."

He said "exploratory" courses will now be available to the children at an earlier age. Those classes include health education, consumer science formerly known as home economics, technology, personal development, art, band and chorus. The classes also get students exposed to eastern and western languages. Ultimately, the children decide what to pursue in further studies.

Thibault looks at the "social emotional balance for the kids" as another benefit. He said the children are in smaller class sizes and social groups in elementary schools, whereas at L&G they will be part of "a much bigger pond."

Thibault said in elementary schools, the students could have one teacher for multiple years while they could have multiple teachers in one year in his school. The district's plan would see sixth graders interacting with two academic teachers and different exploratory teachers.

"We're trying to break them in slowly," Thibault said, as different teachers will be instructing each subject starting in seventh grade. "We want a gradual release."

Sixth grade classes will be held on Level A, where the middle school is now. Thibault said a couple of classes will be moved downstairs to make room and the sixth grade would be separated by the teachers in core subjects. He said sixth graders will be with teachers during their exploratory classes in the lower level.

Older students will still receive services on Level A, where the school's main office, nurse, counselor and technology department are located. But they will largely remain separate from the middle school students, Thibault said. There are two gyms to keep middle and high school classes apart, he said, and students will use the same cafeteria but at different times. Students in K-12 have already shared bus transportation together for decades, although the older kids ride in the back, he added.

Thibault has talked with Lee Ann Monroe, assistant principal at Twin Valley Middle High School, which has had sixth graders in the building for about 10 years now.

"Because the buildings are different, it does make some things a little bit different," Thibault said. "They keep things separate."

But it seems having the sixth graders there has been "good for them," he said.

Thibault said the move was not his idea. The board had asked him to look into it as part of exploring opportunities in the context of Act 46, a law that in an effort to improve equity and find efficiencies statewide brought upon the merger of local school districts.

"But through the process of doing that, I think it's a better shot for sixth graders than it would be staying where they're at for one more year," Thibault said. "I think we have a lot to offer and kids would really benefit from being part of the Leland & Gray community."

School Board Chairman Joe Winrich said Act 46 is all about equity and increasing opportunities for students.

"Schools are sort of dying the death of 1,000 cuts," he said. "We can't afford this, we can't afford that."

Winrich said he has seen elementary schools able to do less and less over the years. The plan to move give sixth graders, he said, provides the exploratory classes and aligns with the Common Core math and reading assessments used as the standard in grades 6-8.

"There were just so many positives the administration presented to us," he said. "It didn't require a lot of wrangling. We're not moving everyone out of a building. This is 40 kids going someplace they already go, just a little bit earlier."

The biggest hurdle at Twin Valley was fear from the parents, Winrich said Monroe told Leland & Gray school officials.

"We're getting a lot of pushback that we're doing this really quickly, but we develop a budget starting in the next couple of months, which we start physically running next fiscal year," Winrich said. "There's a lot of time to work with the transition team of parents and the people at Leland & Gray and the Windham Central Supervisory Union to put together something that works for kids."

He said there may be financial benefits but it will be hard to tell until budgeting starts. Two teachers will be needed in the middle school and other teachers will be leaving the elementary schools.

Winrich felt concerns from parents had been heard.

"I think the administration has so far done a great job of addressing the changes," he said. "We're trying to keep the benefits to the students at the forefront of all our decisions at the board."

Reach staff writer Chris Mays at cmays@reformer.com, at @CMaysBR on Twitter and 802-254-2311, ext. 273.

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