Shawnee Mission 6th grade commission issues long-awaited final report, but next steps remain murky

Sixth graders at Briarwood Elementary.
Sixth graders at Briarwood Elementary.

The group of more than three dozen parents and employees who spent more than eight months digging into the nuances of sixth grade alignment for the Shawnee Mission School District has released its final report, but what, if anything, the district and board of education will do with its findings remains unclear.

The commission’s report does not make any recommendations about whether Shawnee Mission should maintain its status quo and keep sixth graders in the elementary school setting, or transition to the model favored by most of its peer districts in Johnson County and move sixth graders to the middle school level. But it does provide detailed analysis of four questions the district would need to address before making a decision:

  • What are the most essential components necessary to provide a highly effective social/emotional and academic experience for sixth grade students?
  • What are the advantages (for students) of having sixth grade in a K-6 elementary setting?
  • What are the advantages (for students) of having sixth grade in a 6-8 grade middle school setting?
  • What action(s) would a transition of sixth graders to a middle school setting require from the school district?

Superintendent Jim Hinson briefly noted the issuance of the final report toward the start of Monday’s board of education meeting, saying that the issue would come before the board for “considerable discussion” in June so as to give the board and the public time to digest the lengthy report. Hinson also noted that none of the commission’s findings have a direct impact on the boundary change recommendations the board is considering for the 2018-19 school year.

Still, he noted that a move away from the current alignment would pose significant logistical challenges for the administration.

“If you make a decision to move sixth grade to the middle school this is a multiple-year process. This cannot happen quickly,” he said. “The issue of moving sixth grade to middle school, if that decision is made down the road, it will be a very challenging process to move over 2,000 sixth graders to the middle school. So this is not something that could happen immediately.”

Hinson’s impending departure from the district at the end of June further complicates the situation, as it seems less likely the board would vote to enact such a significant change at the same time it was searching for a new full-time superintendent who would be charged with enacting the plan.

Among the highlights of the commission’s report are:

    • Sixth graders’ social and emotional needs can be successfully met in either setting: “While some parents are concerned about potentially negative exposure their students will have to older classmates other parents have commented that their student was more than ready for a move to the middle level during their sixth grade level. The parent concerns about moving sixth graders to the middle level are nearly entirely social or emotional in nature. It was clear to our committee that academically middle school is a better fit for sixth grade students. However, both parent input and research suggest that the success of sixth grade students in any setting is less reliant on the configuration itself and more dependent on the people and their commitment to the systems put in place to support students.”
    • Moving sixth graders to the middle school level would offer students access to more age-appropriate learning opportunities: “The advantages of sixth graders in a middle school setting are numerous. National and State curriculum bands support the sixth through eighth model, middle school teachers provide rigorous coursework in their areas of expertise, and students have multiple opportunities to explore numerous elective courses based on their interests; additionally, students experience those exploratory classes each day, without sacrificing core instruction to do so. With appropriate teaming models and strong transitional programs in place, middle schools also offer the support and flexibility needed to ensure all students’ needs are met at the appropriate developmental level for each child. However, as middle schools currently exist in the Shawnee Mission School District, many programs and considerations for staffing would need to be made to ensure these standards are met for all students.”
    • Sixth grade students at the middle school level may perform worse academically and exhibit more behavior problems: “Students in 6th grade in elementary school generally academically perform at levels higher than 6th graders in middle schools. Regarding academic success in sixth grade in elementary school versus sixth grade in a middle school, research shows that students who transition to middle school in sixth grade perform at lower levels on standardized tests than their counterparts in elementary schools or K-8 school settings….[T]here is an ample body of research indicating that reports of disruptive behavior and discipline issues increase for sixth graders who are in middle school versus sixth graders who attend elementary schools…Boys, students who are part of an ethnic minority group, and students of low socioeconomic status are more likely to be referred for disciplinary issues than their sixth grade peers who remain in elementary schools”
    • The district has the capacity to meet the challenge of moving sixth graders to the middle school level: “[O]ur investigation finds that although there would be challenges – more systemic in nature, we do not perceive these challenges to be insurmountable to the success of 6th graders.”

The full report, which can be downloaded here, is embedded below:

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