Friday March 22, 2013

DAWSON RASPUZZI

Staff Writer

BENNINGTON -- The Mount Anthony Union School District is shelving its goal of actively courting school districts to send their sixth grades to the middle school.

The board has maintained the goal of attracting the sixth grades from Pownal, Shaftsbury, North Bennington and Woodford to attend the middle school since Bennington began sending its sixth graders there in 2007. Over the years, the outlying kindergarten through sixth grade districts have repeatedly expressed no interest in losing their sixth grades.

The goal had not been discussed by MAU since last March, when voters in each town proved they were not interested through an advisory question. At Wednesday's MAU Education Committee meeting the group decided if they are not going to continue to make efforts attracting the other sixth grades it is finally time to abandon the goal.

"If we're going to, as a board, put it down as one of the three or four goals we say we're going to actually pursue, then we better be out here with an action plan on it," board member Leon Johnson said. "We asked the other districts and they said flat out, ‘no, we're not ready to do that' ... I would like to have that happen, but it's not going to happen by just having it on the bottom of our sheet (of goals)."

Replacing the goal will be a new objective to fully integrating the sixth grade students from Bennington with the seventh and eighth grades.

"Right now we have an elementary sixth grade housed in the orange wing. We don't have a six, seven, eight middle school, we have a seventh and eighth grade middle school and a sixth grade wing," said Sean-Marie Oller, chairwoman of the MAU board.

Principal Timothy Payne, who will help craft the wording of the new goal, said he hopes to have the sixth grade students at the middle school fully integrated within two school years. The change would allow sixth grade students access to more programs that are now unavailable including foreign languages, chorus, band and others. In addition to making more opportunities available to the Bennington sixth grade students, the change could also get other districts to reconsider their stance on their own sixth grades.

"It would connect six, seven and eight, (and) it would make the middle school even more attractive for kids to come and say there's really cool things going on," Payne said.

The first step will be to get the sixth grade on the same bell schedule, which he is striving to have in place by the fall. The step is important so the different grades can all use shared spaces like the library and gym more cohesively.

Next school year, Payne and teachers will continue efforts to work on the difficult aspects of the transition.

Some of the factors that make the change difficult are in the teachers contract because sixth grade teachers are considered elementary teachers with different obligations than middle school teachers. "The middle school contractual minutes are less than the elementary ... there's lots of different areas that would have to be looked at," Oller said.

Another issue that will likely arise -- as it has in the past when sixth grade integration has been discussed -- is concern among the elementary districts about maintaining a unified curriculum for sixth graders.

Contact Dawson Raspuzzi at draspuzzi@benningtonbanner.com or follow on Twitter @DawsonRaspuzzi