Monterey Peninsula Unified School District shifts sixth grade to elementary school

Peninsula Premier Admin

MONTEREY — The Monterey Peninsula Unified School District board voted unanimously Tuesday to move sixth grade from middle to elementary school in the district starting with the 2021-2022 academic year.

District Superintendent PK Diffenbaugh said the decision, which came after town hall meetings and multiple discussion sessions, was a recommendation by a task force created to look ahead at the district’s future.

“I think the thinking behind it is that sixth-graders having an extra year at an elementary site allows for another year in a smaller environment as they mature and that they’ll be better prepared to move into the middle-school level,” he said. “When we look across the board, we see that from fifth to sixth grade we see a drop both in enrollment but also in student performance, so the thinking was another year at the elementary school would be beneficial to the students and we certainly heard that from our families when we did surveys.”

While the idea began before the first COVID-19 case was recorded in the area, Diffenbaugh said the pandemic gives the idea added relevance.

“The possibility that students would have last been on campus as a fourth-grader, I think that’s really hard to imagine them making the transition into the middle-school environment,” he said. “So keeping them for sixth grade gives them that extra year, which many of them will have missed a full year of (in-person) elementary school. So I think it makes sense both in the short and long term.”

The idea was part of the Vision 2025+ Task Force — made up of community leaders, parents, staff members and heads of the collective bargaining groups — created in August 2019 to look at historical enrollment data, future enrollment predictions, student achievement data and the size of the schools to come up with recommendations for the board to consider moving forward. Since the work of the task force was completed, the district hired Eric Hall & Associates to conduct an assessment on how to move forward.

In addition to moving sixth grade, the board Tuesday voted to move forward with the district’s timeline of considering closing school sites as part of a consolidation and looking at changing some elementary schools to TK-8.

“We have been looking at how do we set up the district for success and long-term sustainability and the reality is we are a declining enrollment district that loses about 150 students per year,” Diffenbaugh said. “I think it’s only going to get worse. As I read in The Herald. the median house is now over $860,000 in Monterey County and I think it’s just getting harder and harder for younger families to live here.”

According to Diffenbaugh, the district operates 23 campuses while many districts of similar size operate about 60% of that.

“We really need to look at, long-term, how are we going to continue to offer the type of services that our kids deserve and maintain the progress that we’ve made over the last six or seven years,” he said. “One of the things we need to look at is right-sizing the district. So we’ve identified some campuses that have very low enrollment and (we are) looking at the potential for consolidation in the future.”

The report by Eric Hall & Associates proposes scenarios that could see Foothill Elementary School and Walter Colton Middle School in Monterey and Highland Elementary School in Seaside consolidated. The public will get a chance to weigh in on the proposals, with community meetings already scheduled for those three schools as well as La Mesa and Monte Vista elementary schools. Part of the proposal to close Walter Colton Middle would be to shift Monterey’s elementary schools to TK-8. Go to mpusd.net/apps/news/article/1384054 for times and links to upcoming community meetings.

“Within the city of Monterey, there are actually very few students and yet we operate three elementary schools, a middle school and a high school,” Diffenbaugh said. “In looking at the numbers of the students who actually live within the boundaries, it’s possible to operate two TK-8 schools and one high school and serve the number of students who are within those boundaries.”

The timeline calls for community engagement meetings to be held through April, with a decision on consolidation and further grade shifts set for April or May. If the board votes to shutter a school, it would remain open in the 2021-2022 academic year. Any consolidation, additional grade shifts or new attendance boundaries would begin in the 2022-2023 school year.

Diffenbaugh said if the district moves forward with the plan, the Monterey elementary schools would shift to TK-7 in the 2022-2023 school year and TK-8 the following year so that no Walter Colton Middle students would be displaced.

“It really allows you to build your school culture over years, where your kids are staying with you as your school expands,” he said. “Reversely, Colton is 6-8 (grades) now, next year it would be 7-8, the following year it would be just eighth grade and then it would close.”

Contributed by local news sources

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