Three Atlanta elementary schools might stop sending their students to middle school, an institution designed for the awkward age when kids begin puberty, get in trouble more often, and prepare for high school.
Instead, Toomer, Burgess-Peterson and Whitefoord elementary schools in Kirkwood and Edgewood would keep their students on the same campus from kindergarten through eighth grade and become “elemiddle” schools under a proposal being pushed by parents.
The parents say they want their children to remain in a more nurturing environment rather than send them off for sixth through eighth grades to Coan Middle School, a half-empty building surrounded by a graveyard. At 261 students, Coan’s enrollment has dropped to the point where it would be forced to close if any of the three campuses that feed into it went K-8.
The K-8 proposal, which could be decided by the Atlanta school board next month, would break from the most common education structure nationally and create the first K-8 traditional public schools in the metro area’s five core systems (Atlanta, Cobb, DeKalb, Fulton and Gwinnett). Several charter and private schools already teach students through eighth grade.
“We’ve pulled elementary students out of their schools and isolated them in middle school, and we’ve seen more problems and distractions,” said Adrienne Tankersley, whose second-grader attends Burgess-Peterson. “We push them as elementary students, then we hold them in middle school until we teach them again in high school.”
But the K-8 structure would cost more money, put 4-year-olds in the same school as 14-year-olds, and set a precedent that parents at other elementary schools might want to copy.
“I don’t want my children going to a school where they’d have to enter through a metal detector in first grade,” said Sara Brown, who plans to send her twin 4-year-old boys to Whitefoord. “Some efforts should be made to at least mitigate them all being housed together and acknowledge that these two populations of students have very different needs. They don’t always work well together.”
Supporters of the K-8 idea cite research that indicates students could benefit academically from staying in their elementary schools. For example, a 2010 study by Jonah Rockoff and Benjamin Lockwood of Columbia Business School found students suffered declines in academic achievement when moving to middle school.
Besides academic and disciplinary reasons, there’s another factor motivating the eastside K-8 movement: competition from charter schools.
Three area charter schools that offer K-8 classes have attracted families away from their traditional public schools, causing declines in enrollment and community involvement. At Coan Middle, the number of involved families has dropped to the point where the parent-teacher association has disbanded.
“A lot of parents have voted with their feet and moved. We wanted a family-like atmosphere that had academic rigor and continuity through the middle school years,” said Chris Buettner, a member of the Toomer local school council who has a kindergartner and fourth-grader enrolled there. “Very few of our community’s families are making that transition to middle school.”
Superintendent Erroll Davis presented three options in a Dec. 30 letter to the community: All three elementary schools could convert to K-8 and move to the Coan Middle campus; Whitefoord and Toomer could combine and move to the Coan campus while Burgess-Peterson would be given the option of whether to move; or each school could become K-8 on their existing campuses — the most expensive choice, requiring campus upgrades and additional administrators to be hired.
Any of those options would shutter Coan Middle, which was spared from closure a year and a half ago when parents protested Davis’ initial redistricting plan. No Coan parents spoke about the issue at this month’s school board meeting.
“I hope they don’t close it. Coan seemed like a good fit for my grandson. It’s a smaller setting with caring teachers,” Beverly Turner as she was picking up her sixth-grade grandson from school last week. “Middle school is a big change for students, and this is a better structured setting.”
While nearby charter schools — including Atlanta Neighborhood Charter School, Drew Charter School and Wesley International Academy — offer classes through eighth grade, the structure of the school may not matter as much as other factors such as instructional resources and teacher collaboration, said Matt Underwood, executive director of ANCS.
“Sometimes we overstate the importance of grade level structures,” said Underwood, whose Grant Park school houses elementary and middle school students in separate buildings. “The structure of the school is really secondary to the school experience and what’s happening in the classroom.”
The school board already approved a K-8 expansion at one school last month, when it converted Centennial Place Elementary in Midtown to a charter school. Any eastside schools that added middle school grades would continue as traditional public schools.
Two community meetings on the K-8 proposals are scheduled this month before the school board considers the matter.
Southeast Atlanta public school enrollments as of Oct. 1, 2013
- Burgess-Peterson Elementary (pre-K to 5) … 348
- Toomer Elementary (pre-K to 5) … 379
- Whitefoord Elementary (pre-K to 5) … 266
- Coan Middle (6 to 8) … 261
- Atlanta Neighborhood Charter School (K to 8) … 666
- Drew Charter (pre-K to 9) … 1,131
- Wesley International Academy (K to 8) … 708
Source: Georgia Department of Education
K-8 community meetings
Community meetings about the possibility of expanding Toomer, Burgess-Peterson and Whitefoord elementary schools to include middle school grades will be held at 6 p.m. Jan. 23 and 28 at Jackson High School, 801 Glenwood Ave., Atlanta.