Bethel school panel votes to recommend switch to middle school format
SARA SCHILLING; Staff writer
Pierce County’s third-largest school district is a step closer to changing the way its schools are organized.
A committee of Bethel School District residents and staff voted Wednesday night to recommend switching the junior high configuration to a middle school model, a move that would in some way affect most of the Spanaway-based district’s nearly 18,000 students.
Most of the 23 members on hand favored moving from the junior high structure to one in which elementary school ends at fifth grade, students in grades six to eight are taught together in middle school, and ninth-graders are included in high school.
Under the current system, Bethel students stay in elementary school through sixth grade, then move to junior high for grades seven through nine and high school in grades 10-12.
The final decision about whether to make a change rests with the school board. Officials said the earliest a change could be implemented would be the 2012-13 school year.
“Whatever the result is, we want it to be best for our kids, to provide the best learning environment for our kids,” Mike Brophy, assistant superintendent for secondary education, said.
Puyallup is the only other Pierce County district using the traditional junior high model, and a committee there is studying a switch to middle schools.
The middle school model is common nationwide. Tacoma Public Schools has used it since the 1980s.
During the two-hour meeting Wednesday, Bethel officials went over the pros and cons of the change — from a potential boost in academic achievement in ninth grade, to increased expenses and space challenges.
Harvey Erickson, chief financial officer, said operation costs would go up about $800,000 a year because of extra expenses such as more administrators and counselors needed at the high schools.
Moving only ninth-graders — an option that was discussed Wednesday — could possibly be done with no extra cost, he said.
Switching systems would mean some one-time facility expenses, such as adding portable classrooms, but those would be covered by money the district has set aside for capital projects, Erickson said.
Shannon Scacciotti, a committee member who has three children in Bethel schools, said it makes sense to move to a system so many other districts use. She especially wants to see ninth-graders in high school so they have access to more classes and programs, she said.
Change can be scary, she said, but “I have full confidence that if the board decides to implement this, our amazing teachers and administrators will do it right and do it well.”
The district has 17 elementary schools, six junior high schools, three comprehensive high schools, and alternative and online programs.
The tally Wednesday was 20 votes to recommend a change and three votes to leave things alone.
Of the 20 change votes, 16 preferred the traditional middle school model, two wanted to leave the elementary configuration alone but move ninth-graders to high school, and two didn’t list a preference.
Joy Cook, a Bethel School Board member, said during the meeting that the vote doesn’t mean the end of the process. The board has more research to do, and the public will have more opportunities to weigh in, she said.
“I can guarantee you this isn’t the last of these kinds of meetings,” she said.
The board plans to discuss the committee’s recommendation Jan. 25.
Sara Schilling: 253-552-7058 email@example.com