Sixth grade middle school survey reveals sharp split between parents and staff in Shawnee Mission district

Shawnee Mission parents by wide margin preferred to keep sixth grade students in elementary buildings and out of middle school buildings like Indian Hills.

A survey of almost 4,000 Shawnee Mission parents and students found 71 percent in favor of keeping sixth graders in elementary schools, a sharp contrast to the recommendation of a task force established by the district to explore the issue.

The survey was part of a report prepared by a task force established by the Shawnee Mission School District at the beginning of the year to explore the idea of educating sixth graders in middle school, an approach used by neighboring districts.

The final task force report recommended the district move forward with shifting sixth graders to middle school, concluding there were strong academic and extracurricular benefits to doing so. The survey found 63 percent of the 900 district employees who responded support the change.

But the task force recognized the depth of parental and student objections in the survey, much of which was based on concerns that sixth graders were not emotionally prepared to handle middle school and worries about their safety and security.

“While the survey leaned in favor of the sixth-grade students remaining in the elementary setting, other factors provided a strong belief that there is a stronger academic benefit for sixth-grade students to be served in a grade 6-8 configuration,” the report stated.

“With that said, the committee also feels strongly that if sixth-grade students are moved to a grade 6-8 configuration, the district must address the social/emotional needs of the sixth-grade students.”

Last week, the school board approved a recommendation by Superintendent Jim Hinson to establish another task force to further study the proposal. The new task force will be led by Doug Sumner, assistant superintendent for human resources.

The survey conducted by the previous task force in late February and March indicates Sumner’s major task will be answering the concerns of parents and students about whether they’re mature enough to handle middle school.

Supporters of continuing sixth-grade in elementary school believed it better ensured student safety and security, and supported their social and emotional well being.

“I strongly disagree with changing the current grade placement of sixth grade,” one respondent said. “I think they need more time to adjust before getting into a school with older classes, the maturity level is much too great.’

But a teacher responding to the survey said sixth graders needed to move on.

“I think the sixth graders in our building ‘check out’ when they hit sixth grade because they are the top dogs,” the respondent said. “They seem to actually have a less successful year than they did previous years.”

The sixth grade survey was answered by 3,839 parents, 431 students and 898 employees.

In its final report, the task force summarized the recommendations of five sub-committees established to study the idea. The committees on athletics and activities; curriculum, and staffing all recommended the shift to middle school.

The committee on facilities found that regardless of how sixth graders were educated in the future, there would be need for substantial capital improvements.

The committee on social and emotional issues could not reach a consensus.