By Karen Basso and Terry Willis
Public debate has begun over restructuring grade configurations at Carbon County schools.
Three district elementary schools are currently operating over capacity, which has prompted discussion over the best way to alleviate both overcrowding and low student numbers. Castle Heights, at 581, has more students than all of Carbon High.
One proposal on the table is to move ninth grade students to Carbon High with the possibility of moving sixth grade students to a middle school atmosphere. In doing so, students in grades 6-8 would attend either Mont Harmon or Helper Junior High.
According to Carbon School District board member Wayne Woodward, many in the community thought this proposal had already been approved by the board.
“We have had several stake holder meetings to discuss this matter, but nothing has been decided yet,” Woodward explained to a small crowd at Carbon High Monday evening. “We are now asking parents for their input and we want to focus on their feelings about the alignment.”
In an effort to gather public input, the school board conducted two town hall meetings on Nov. 18, one at the high school and the other at Helper Junior High.
The small group in attendance at Carbon High was comprised of a few parents and mainly secondary teachers. Although some concerns were raised, overall the group agreed that moving ninth grade students to the high school would be beneficial.
According to current enrollment figures, there are approximately 560 students at Carbon High School. With the addition of ninth grade, this number would jump by approximately 200, for a total of 750-800 students. According to district superintendent Steve Carlsen, this number would be significantly lower than in previous years.
“About 10 years ago, the total number of students at the school was nearly 1,100,” he stated. “Change is hard, but I’ve always thought that ninth grade belongs at the high school.”
Several high school teachers in attendance agreed including Daphne Stockdale.
“I come from a school that 9-12 grades were taught together,” she explained. “I loved it and didn’t see an issue.”
Carbon High principal Bruce Bean agreed.
“If we can get ninth graders going sooner and on track to graduate, then that’s great,” he stated. “Most schools our size are comprised of 9-12 grades. Regardless, what we do needs to benefit all the students.”
Most in attendance at the High School agreed that combining these grades would open doors for secondary students. Carbon High Vice Principal Robin Hussey explained that programs such as Future Farmers of America (FFA) and Family, Career and Community Leaders of America (FCCLA) would grow and this has club advisers excited. Woodward added to the fact that athletics would also see growth.
“The athletic department hasn’t pushed for the merge, but they would benefit from it as well,” explained Woodward. “The move may provide for a more robust education.”
Superintendent Carlsen also explained that music departments such as choir and band may also see growth if the merge happens.
“Right now, the students have little elective ability,” he explained. “That’s why we lose a lot of students in the music department.”
Math is a concern to educators. Test scores throughout the district are lowest in this subject. By combining 9-12 grades, educators hope to improve scores based on core curriculum which is set up according to grade level. Currently, state requirements has secondary education grouped as 9-12 grades. By combining these grades under one roof, the hope is to see math scores improve significantly.
School board member Melanie Fausett assured the crowd that the board’s main focus is on the students.
“We want to improve academics and focus on bettering education,” she explained. “That will drive me toward a decision. If we do this right, we will improve test scores and academics, then the merge will be a good thing. However, we need public feedback.”
And feedback is exactly what the district received at the Helper Junior High meeting Monday night. A much larger crowd gathered in the auditorium at Helper Junior high to listen to Carbon School District’s Kristen Taylor go over the proposal to move the ninth and sixth graders. She spent time going over the numbers and the thought process the board took to get to this decision.
Taylor stressed that no decision has been made and no one was looking at shutting down Helper Junior High. Despite reassurances, the crowd was not easily consoled. Many spoke out against the proposal, feeling like their children would get lost in the move to a larger school and expressed concerns that this had not been thoroughly thought through.
It was pointed out that the last time Carbon School District went to a middle school model it “failed miserably.” Taylor admitted it was not a success, but feels like the district learned from that and is approaching creating a middle school in a much different way than the last time.
While nothing is certain, she said they are leaning towards having sixth graders in a model similar to what they do in elementary school. There will be a great focus on making sure the teachers are well trained to be middle school certified as well.
Most of the concerns centered over the ninth graders. Many had children that would be ninth graders next year. The students that were in attendance seemed more open to the move, but did express concerns of not being able to make any of the sport teams.
Superintendent Carlsen attended the Helper meeting as well and tried to address these concerns. He explained that he identified with the Helper residents because he had attended a small school and had some great opportunities to play football because of it.
Both he and Taylor said that the mostly likely scenario would have the core classes such as math and language arts with a ninth grade track. This would assure the ninth graders would not get “lost” in academic classes. Electives might see the students going to classes with upper classmates.
The bottom line will have to be what is best for the student and what the district can do financially to make it happen. Changes of some kind will be inevitable. School Board member Lee McCourt summed it up, “think about what happens if we do nothing?”