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Fort Smith changing from junior highs to middle schools

School district moving freshmen into high school by Thomas Saccente | April 25, 2021 at 1:00 a.m.
The Fort Smith School District administration building Friday, Jan. 22, 2021. (NWA Democrat-Gazette/Andy Shupe)

FORT SMITH -- The School District's reconfiguration of grade levels starting next school year will result in students having earlier access to career planning, fine arts instruction and other skills-based programs, according to district officials.

Northside and Southside high schools will be converted from grades 10-12 to grades 9-12. Freshman wings are being built at both schools as part of construction and renovation projects that should be finished in August.

Chaffin, Darby, Kimmons and Ramsey junior high schools will be converted to middle schools. They will transition from campuses for grades 7-9 to campuses for grades 6-8, with sixth-graders being moved out of the elementary schools.

The impact on sixth-graders will be especially profound, according to Deputy Superintendent Martin Mahan.

"Sixth grade and middle school in itself gives us an opportunity to really provide skill development and access and choice to our sixth-grade students, as well as seventh and eighth," Mahan said. "And that's been kind of one of the focal points as we've reconfigured to middle schools and one of the focuses our team has collaborated with on a regular basis."

Sixth-graders will have greater access to things taught at the secondary level, according to Mahan. He said the opportunities will help them better understand their priorities as they enter high school.

Mahan said sixth-graders will be enrolled in four core classes as they are now: English language arts, social studies, math and science. Starting this fall, they'll also be able to take two elective classes, such as choir, band, orchestra, computer applications, reading/math intervention, dyslexia interventions and exploratory athletics.

The three fine arts electives -- choir, band and orchestra -- will be offered as yearlong beginner classes for sixth-graders, Mahan said. Seventh- and eighth-graders may participate in progressively more advanced versions of these classes. The exploratory athletics course will allow sixth-graders to participate in a certain sport -- basketball, flag football or volleyball, soccer and track -- for nine weeks at a time.

The electives are planned to be rolled out in the fall with no additional staffing needed, according to Mahan.

Sixth-graders will take a one-period exploratory course as well, which Mahan said will concern a specific subject and be taught in nine-week segments. The subjects will include science, technology, engineering and mathematics, career connections, art, Spanish, physical education/health and music.

In addition, all middle school students will participate in advisory classes to help them transition from elementary school.

The School District intends to have the elective selection process for sixth-graders take place within the next few weeks, Mahan said.

A parent's perspective

Sarah Carrier has three children enrolled in the district -- a daughter in third grade and twins in the sixth grade.

Her oldest children would be moving up to the next level of school even without the reconfiguration. She believes this change will not have a tremendous effect on them, aside from them not being the youngest students in their middle school and spending only two years there before going to high school. Her third-grader will have one less year in elementary school.

Carrier thinks her youngest child would be able to benefit from the sixth grade course options Mahan described.

"I think any time you give kids an opportunity to explore what the options are, it's going to help them more than just having to make a choice that's not always informed and allow them to know better what they might like to pursue the next year," Carrier said.

Her children are "definitely college-bound," she said. Her son's dream job is being an imagineer for the Walt Disney Company.

"To figure out the path to get him there, I'm assuming that's going to take some engineering or math-type courses, as well as some artistic pursuits and things like that," Carrier said. "And I think having that extra year at the high school where they have more options, could only be a benefit. It couldn't hurt."

Reconfiguration costs

The construction and renovation projects at the high schools are part of the district's Vision 2023 capital improvement program Fort Smith and Barling voters approved in 2018, The tax rate was raised from 36.5 mills to 42 mills and is expected to generate about $120 million. The School Board approved the district's five-year strategic plan in December 2017.

Mahan said one of the priorities of Vision 2023 was having high school campuses for grades 9-12. The grade reconfiguration will allow the district to better track students, meet their needs, and provide intervention for them throughout their high school experience, in addition to increasing the students' access to career opportunities.

"Also, there's a desire to have middle schools within that Vision 2023," Mahan said. "Middle schools are pretty common in the state and the region, and it helps us become aligned with what's normal practice across the state and the region as well."

Mahan said staffing has been completed for the reconfiguration, with some exceptions in the ninth grade.

While there hasn't been any additional staff costs, the freshman wings will cost millions. There also will be equipment costs for the sixth grade choir, band and orchestra classes, as well as the exploratory athletics course, that haven't been determined.

The facility projects at Southside High School were projected to cost more than $43.8 million in 2018, according to the district. The Northside High School projects were expected to cost more than $34.6 million.

Superintendent Terry Morawski said in 2019 the projects at Southside would encompass more than 150,000 square feet of new and renovated space while the projects at Northside would be about 133,000 square feet.

Potential benefits, concerns

School Board President Bill Hanesworth said he thinks the shift to middle schools is the most important part of the plan.

"If we can really make a difference in the middle school to that next leap into the high school, to have them maybe a little more prepared for some of the career goals and things that they have, that to me is a big deal now," Hanesworth said. "Can a ninth-grader choose his career in the ninth grade? Probably not, but at least he's had a little more input into thinking about it and thinking about what he needs to take, and maybe the parents can be more involved in some of that."

Sarah McKenzie, executive director of the Office for Education Policy at the University of Arkansas, said grade configuration is generally based upon the buildings a district has and the number of students the district can put in those buildings. Her office sees many districts that may start out with a K-6 and 7-12 configuration for its elementary and high schools that put in a middle school and make other changes as they grow.

Fort Smith's plan is a great opportunity to improve communication about things going on with the district, according to McKenzie.

"I think that, in terms of just the way schools are run, it does create an opportunity, because people are interested in this change right now, to really up the game for communications with parents and with students," McKenzie said. "I think it's important to involve students in the process, sort of helping bring them in to help kids transition into the new school, or to communicate from the student perspective what's different about the new school that they're coming into."

McKenzie said another potential benefit is that the blending of staff members from different schools could spark discussions that lead to innovation. Potential drawbacks include general disruption from having children go to a different school than what parents previously expected.

Hanesworth said most criticism he heard from parents was concern sixth-graders won't have access to the programs they had in a lower grade.

"And that resonated throughout any conversation that I had," Hanesworth said. "What are you going to do about sports? What are you going to do about choir? What are you going to do about band? What are you going to do about the arts? And it was a repetitive theme through the people that I talked with."

The district addressed those concerns in the reconfiguration plan, he said.

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Enrollment

The Fort Smith School District had 13,839 students in grades K-12 as of Oct. 1.

Source: Arkansas Department of Education

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