McKinleyville district approves plan to divide campuses by grades

The Times-Standard

Students at Dow's Prairie and Morris Elementary schools will be assigned to campuses based on grade level rather than participation in the Spanish immersion program under a board decision that drew a mixed reactions from parents, teachers and community members.

The McKinleyville Union School District Board of Trustees on Wednesday unanimously approved Superintendent Michael Davies-Hughes' plan to place all kindergarten through second grade students at one site, third through fifth grade at the other and sixth through eighth grade at McKinleyville Middle School.

Which campus each of the lower grade groups will go to is still being decided.

"Now that we have a direction from the board, the action planning will begin, and we can talk about how to make this model work," Davies-Hughes said. "I'm confident that people will focus their attention on how we can make this the best for the students. We will be talking through the critical questions we have and get input from the stakeholders, parents, staff, teachers, community -- everyone -- on how they think we can make this model work."

Under the new plan, both the traditional and language immersion programs will be offered in kindergarten through second grade and students from both programs will be evenly mixed in third through fifth grade, according to Davies-Hughes. Starting in third grade, immersion program students and traditional students will be split up for a portion of the day -- with immersion students studying Spanish and their peers taking art, music or science. Davies-Hughes added that the Special Day Class program would be offered at both sites.

Both schools currently serve kindergarten through fifth grade, with the traditional program at Dow's Prairie and the language immersion program at Morris -- a model that has created challenges for the district.

In a report to the board, Davies-Hughes said some of the issues included overcrowding at Dow's Prairie, the fact that students cannot attend Morris after second grade unless they already have Spanish skills, and the unequal number of special day class students between the sites.

During Wednesday's meeting, several people spoke about how the changes could affect their children and even provided other options, while others threatened to leave the district if the changes were made.

"I'm dismayed to see the program getting watered down as both a teacher and a parent of a child who goes to Morris," said Heidi Winter, a first grade teacher at Morris. "The immersion program has been controversial since it began, and my experience tells me the community won't be united after this decision."

Controversy over the decision to divide the traditional and immersion programs between the two elementary schools five years ago carried over into Wednesday's meeting, with board members acknowledging the district's slow response to addressing concerns and a perception the campuses were being treated differently.

"It took five years too many to fix the problems from the last reconfiguration," board member Sarah Alto said. "If this doesn't work, we need to move faster to fix the problems."

Board member Mary McCarthy said she felt the choose was the best option for the district.

"As a former teacher, I weighed all the concerns and felt that this model fell in line with the district's goal to provide equal opportunities for all students," McCarthy said. "After looking at the pros and cons, I realized that we don't have enough students to evenly spread between the two schools. The staff is very creative and I'm sure they can find ways to make this work. But if it doesn't, nothing is set in stone and we should regularly evaluate the program in case there's an amendment that needs to be made."

Carol Newman, whose two children went through the district, said everyone needs to start look forward.

"The immersion program is a jewel and should be offered at both schools," Newman said. "With the board's decision, this is the time for parents and the community to come together and work through any issues."

Melissa Simon can be reached at 441-0508 or msimon@times-standard.com.

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