Major School Shuffle In McKinleyville

Jack Durham
Mad River Union

McKINLEYVILLE – Morris and Dow’s Prairie schools may be massively transformed in the coming school year, with all kindergarten through second-grade students going to one campus, and all third- through fifth-grade students going to the other.

Both schools now serve kindergarten through fifth-grade students, with Dow’s offering a traditional academic program and Morris offering its popular Spanish immersion program.

As a result of the reconfiguration, the Spanish program may get watered down for third- through fifth-grade students, with the Spanish immersion replaced with a single academic Spanish class.

IMG_1669The controversial proposal drew more than 150 parents, teachers and community members to the McKinleyville Union School District Board of Trustees meeting Wednesday, April 9. Originally scheduled to be held at the cozy Azalea Conference Center at McKinleyville Middle School, the meeting had to be moved at the last minute to the school’s gym to accommodate the large crowd.

The trustees listened to a presentation from Superintendent Michael Davies-Hughes, followed by testimony from the public.

Board members had questions and wanted more information on different alternatives, ultimately deciding to postpone taking action until a special meeting which will be held at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, April 30 at the McKinleyville Middle School gym.

The reconfiguration is necessary, according to Davies-Hughes, to solve a number of problems that have resulted due to the current school configuration approved in 2009.

For example, because Morris School has a Spanish immersion program, new students to the district cannot enroll there after the second grade unless they already have Spanish skills. This forces most new students to go to Dow’s Prairie.

The Spanish program is not appropriate for some special education students and others with “behavioral support needs,” so they also go to Dow’s Prairie.

Because of this, Dow’s Prairie now has 23 percent of the special education students, while Morris has only nine percent. The state-wide average for a school is about 13 percent.

Dow’s Prairie is now full, with no empty classrooms.

“Outside service providers and itinerant teachers must share rooms and use hallways,” Davies-Hughes wrote in a report to the trustees.

There is also a perceived adversarial relationship between the two schools.

“Competition and conflict between Dow’s and Morris: The adversarial Dow’s vs. Morris situation is historical, and is exacerbated by the perceived inequities between the sites,” Davies-Hughes wrote in his report. “Relationships within the district (parents/staff/students) have the potential to improve considerably within a different configuration.”

Many of these problems were anticipated back in 2009, when the trustees approved the current configuration despite warnings of potential problems from some staff members and teachers.

“That decision has led to where we are today,” Davies-Hughes told the trustees.

“It is the Superintendent’s recommendation,” Davies-Hughes wrote, “that action planning begin as soon as possible for a K-2, 3-5, 6-8 configuration as it most comprehensively addresses the current critical issues within the District as is supported by the Strategic Planning priorities of the board.”

Doing nothing, he said at last week’s meeting, “is untenable.”

One of the concerns raised is how the proposed changes would affect the Spanish immersion program.

According to Davies-Hughes, the program would remain the same as it is now at the new K-2 grade school. Where that campus would be located has n0t been decided. However, in an interview last week, Davies-Hughes said that it would make sense to have the younger students housed at Dow’s Prairie, which has internal hallways. Grades three through five would likely go to Morris School.

McKinleyville Middle School would remain the same, with no changes under the proposed reconfiguration.

While the K-2 Spanish immersion program would remain the same, with students learning subjects in Spanish half the day, immersion would not be offered at the 3-5 grade school.

Instead, students would attend regular classes, with the option of take a single Spanish elective class during the day.

“It dilutes the language immersion program. There’s no doubt about that,” Davies-Hughes told the trustees.

However, the superintendent argued, this needs to be done so that non-immersion students can be part of the school program. Those students would also have the option of taking an elective class, perhaps in science or art.

During public comments, dozens of people spoke, including teachers and parents. The response to the proposal was mixed.

One teacher complained that she had only learned about the proposed reconfiguration on the Monday night before the meeting. (The Union also learned of the agenda item Monday night, and posted a story on its website at the next morning.)

Several people said they were “disheartened” by the proposal, and urged the board to seek other alternatives to solve the district’s problems. Some parents complained that under the reconfiguration, they would have to drive their children to three different campuses.

There was also support voiced for the changes.

“I think it’s a solid model,” said the parent of a Dow’s Prairie student.

Others pleaded for the survival of the immersion program. One woman testified that her kindergarten student can count to 100 in Spanish, while her second-grader can converse in Spanish, alternating between English and Spanish with ease.

“It is a success story,” said a parent.

The superintendent acknowledged that people had legitimate concerns.

“There are many reasons why we shouldn’t do it,” said Davies-Hughes, “but there are more reasons why we should do it.”

When the matter was brought back to the board for consideration, Trustee Mary McCarthy said she needed more time and information before making a decision.

“The first time I saw this information was Monday,” McCarthy said.

“I’m the kind of person that likes to mull things over and hear from people,” McCarthy said.

Trustee Tim Hooven said that one of his reservations about making a decision was the absence of Trustee John McCarthy, who was out of town undergoing surgery. Hooven said the board should try to reach some sort of consensus before making such an important decision.

Both Hooven and Trustee Sara Alto questioned Davies-Hughes about including the immersion program in the 3-5 grades, rather than just an elective class. Davies-Hughes said he would provide the board more information about that proposal before the April 30 meeting.

“None of these options are what I think are best for my son,” Hooven said. But, he added, a decision needs to be made for what is best for the entire district, not just his child.


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  1. Dow's Prarie Mom said:

    Just wondering if they have considered how much the traffic is going to increase at both sites?

  2. Andrew Jones said:

    George, it’s standard in immersion programs everywhere that at a certain point, students in the existing language are too advanced for a new student (who has no such experience) to catch up. It’s a given that this is how immersion works, well, a given everywhere except McKinleyville.

    You’re right, such a student could enter such a class and begin picking up Spanish, but not fast enough to be learning California curriculum in time. Everything about public education today is about the all-important standardized test upon which schools are judged.

  3. Andrew Jones said:

    There are real issues affecting Dow’s Prairie, but the problems being lumped on Morris have been constructed by the strategic plan.

    In the past two years, the number of new-to-the-district third, fourth and fifth graders who have made an appointment to inquire about immersion, and who were unlikely to meet the Spanish fluency requirement, can be counted on one hand. That’s not a basis for ending immersion, but it is this basis upon which their planning began for reconfiguring the schools.

    It’s feasible to do a K-2 and 3-5 configuration with immersion and traditional at both school sites, with special education kids good in language being mainstreamed in the immersion English classrooms, and those kids good in math being mainstreamed in traditional English classrooms. It addresses the board’s stated concerns, except of course, is assumes immersion has a right to exist.

    Currently, the board’s interpretation of the phrase “schools of choice” in the strategic plan doesn’t acknowledge immersion’s right to exist past second grade. That’s a reversal after supporting immersion for 14 years. To put it less delicately, they’re ending the immersion program because it’s successful. Our kids are too knowledgeable in Spanish by the time they finish second grade. Think about that, and then ask why they’re ending a successful program when all of the district’s problems are solvable without ending immersion.

  4. George Wheeler said:

    All three of our children attended Morris, our youngest is now at the Middle School and the two older are in college. The Spanish immersion experience was and is a valuable skill for all our kids. I learned Spanish by being born and raised in a border town … “hanging around” so I do not see why “new” students should ever have been excluded? I like what I have read about the “new” proposal.

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