For quite some time, but with greater diligence over the past year and a half, the Greater Johnstown School District Board of Education has investigated the concept of grade-level grouping. This approach would realign the district's elementary schools from traditional neighborhood schools to schools grouped by grade level.
Why would the district explore this concept? As we all know, the economic climate has placed many of New York's schools in the position of having to cut teachers, increase class sizes, and eliminate programs. Locally, Johnstown has consistently responded by reducing staff, sharing staff across three elementary schools and creating single sections (singletons) within them. We do not want to take opportunities away from our children, we want to provide them with more.
However, increased funding for our schools is not anticipated.
To that end, Johnstown's Board of Education adopted goals that prioritize creative approaches to address current resources while enhancing education to the best extent possible. Grade-level grouping is a way to maximize our students' educational opportunities using available resources.
It should be noted that the concept of grade-level grouping is not new. A review of 23 rural and suburban New York counties (mid-Hudson and upstate) found more than 104 schools that use elementary grade level configurations other than the traditional kindergarten through fifth-grade or kindergarten through sixth-grade models. Each district's change in structure was made for its own reasons; likely no two were exactly the same. In conversations with individuals from other districts, we found factors included trying to create equality for students, scarcity, school closings and the creation of unique learning communities, to name a few.
At two open public forums, the Board of Education sought community input about grade-level grouping and looked for solutions to any concerns that were raised, including addressing the levels of children moving to new schools; breaking up siblings into different schools; providing for inter-age socialization of students and the arrangements for children.
Recent letters to the editor regarding the concept of grade-level grouping in the Greater Johnstown School District have portrayed negative aspects of adopting such a change. However, since these letters noted either an absence from the district's community meetings, or referenced only certain articles about the topic, this column is intended to provide a broader scope.
So, what impact does grade-level grouping really have on children? A consistent factor in the board's deliberation over the past 17 months has been that research confirms both positive and negative aspects of such grade configurations. A review of 12 recent empirical studies and panel data, which took place in United States schools across rural, suburban and urban populations, revealed the following:
- Grade-span configurations and/or student transitions: Some studies found negative correlations between grade level school structures or student transitions and academic achievement. Others found none. All studies acknowledged research in this field is limited, as are the findings.
- Teacher effectiveness and academic achievement: Multiple studies identified a direct link between teacher quality and student achievement. Research has determined teachers benefit from relationships working directly with other, more experienced teachers, and that teacher-teaming, professional learning communities and common planning are integral aspects of raising teacher effectiveness.
- Other points of research: Research found students entering middle school from a single elementary building perform better than students entering from multiple elementary schools. One study, while not recommending transitions, indicated that there is no significant difference in achievement levels of students who have two school transitions (K-6 to 7-12) or more than two transitions (K-6 to 7-8 to 9-12, for example). Studies advise if districts include multiple grade transitions, they should attempt to mitigate the impact of such transitions via student orientation, student mentor programs and other activities. Researchers recommend the configuration of schools should be a local district decision made in consideration of that district's circumstances.
The Johnstown Board of Education has repeatedly and thoughtfully discussed the positives and negatives of grade-level grouping and taken into consideration the same factors mentioned above. Throughout these discussions, the well-being and education of our students and the delivery of instruction in the most efficient and effective manner has been at the center of the conversation.
A grade-level grouping plan has been outlined that takes research findings and community concerns into consideration, eliminates singletons, provides student enrichment and returns valuable art and music programs to the district that were cut in the past. A copy of this plan can be found at www.johnstownschools.org/district/2011-12/GradeLevelGrouping.htm.
The decision before the Johnstown board to adopt grade-level grouping or maintain current services is a difficult one. Please know the board has thoughtfully contemplated the pros and cons, has painstakingly reviewed available research and is exploring all of the ways - both positive and negative - in which any such decision could impact our students and the community.
Robert A. DeLilli is the superintendent of the Greater Johnstown School District.