BENNINGTON -- The topic of incorporating Bennington’s sixth graders into everything the middle school has to offer came up at the first Mount Anthony Union Education Committee meeting of the school year Monday.
Ken Swierad, a new co-chairman of the committee, has long proposed offering more to Bennington’s sixth grade students who currently are in a standalone program at the middle school.
Bennington is the only town that sends its sixth grade to the middle school, and the students are in many ways considered elementary students, as are their peers from Shaftsbury, Pownal, North Bennington and Woodford who do not attend MAUMS until seventh grade.
Like seventh and eight grade students at the middle school, Swierad said Bennington’s sixth graders should be eligible to enroll in foreign language classes, allowed to take advanced classes and participate on school sports teams.
"We have Spanish and French we offer here; it would be nice to offer it to sixth graders as well as seventh and eighth graders," Swierad said. "They always tell you everywhere you read that the younger a student takes a language the easier it is for them to grasp the information."
"Giving these youngsters as much of an opportunity as we can is something that I would be looking for in this system," Swierad said.
High school senior Griffin Thomas, co-chairman of the committee, said if such opportunities were available when he was in middle school it would have benefited him personally, and likely many others.
"The idea should be explored. When I was in middle school I always got all of my work done quickly and was never really challenged," Thomas said. "I think that’s unfortunate that I was never really challenged until I took an AP course in tenth grade, and I think that is something that should be explored if there are some resources available within the school."
MAU Chairwoman Sean-Marie Oller said she also supports the greater integration of sixth grade into the middle school philosophy.
"When we were designing this building, it was supposed to be a sixth-, seventh-, eight-grade middle school, not a seventh and eighth grade and a standalone sixth grade," Oller said.
First-year Principal Timothy Payne said he agrees with a sixth, seventh, and eighth grade philosophy, and that all students should be granted the full allotment of opportunities the middle school can offer, although he also talked about a number of challenges that stand in the way.
"The sixth grade does have, in many ways, a standalone sense in the building, and I think (the school board should) take advantage of the fact you have a new principal in the building, so you take a look at ways things have been operating in the building. I think it’s a perfect year to have that conversation," Payne said.
Many of the challenges come from the sixth grade being aligned with other sixth grades in the supervisory union. Sixth graders make up their own teams at the middle school and are on a different schedule from those in grades seven and eight, which Payne said would make it difficult to allow a sixth grade student to take an advanced class with the older students.
High School Principal Sue Maguire said consideration must also be given to what happens when a student who takes advanced classes in sixth grade reaches seventh and eighth grade and to remain on track they must take high school courses. Maguire said eighth grade students have taken classes at the high school in the past when individual high school teachers have made it work, although scheduling and transportation pose problems.
Grading also poses a conflict as sixth grade students are graded differently than middle school students and receive report cards every trimester, instead of quarterly when they are issued for older students.
"(Sixth grade students are) working toward a standard. Your student meets that, exceeds that, or is progressing toward it. Whereas seventh and eight grade is a letter grade," Payne said.
More conflicts also arise because of the teachers’ contract because sixth grade teachers are considered elementary teachers. Hashing out those issues could be done during the next contract negotiation, Payne said.
Swierad also said he’d like to see sixth graders at the middle school be eligible to play sports, or at least non-contact sports.
MAU Athletics and Activities Director Timothy Brown, who was not at the meeting, said Tuesday the school would have to apply for a waiver from the Vermont Principals Association to allow sixth grade students to play. Getting such a waiver is doable, but Brown said finding fair competition could be difficult as no teams the middle school currently plays include sixth grade students. There are smaller middle schools that do allow sixth grade students to play, including Sacred Heart and Pine Cobble.
Brown said making sixth grade students eligible for middle school teams may also pose some competition between youth leagues in town, which the schools try to avoid.
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