As Pasco opens new schools, it will also be shuffling where students will go

Construction of the Pasco Middle School #4, now named in honor of longtime Pasco educator Ray Reynolds, is the first component for the district to begin the transition of sixth grade students back to middle schools.
Construction of the Pasco Middle School #4, now named in honor of longtime Pasco educator Ray Reynolds, is the first component for the district to begin the transition of sixth grade students back to middle schools. Tri-City Herald

When a group of Pasco officials broke ground on the city’s two newest schools Thursday, they weren’t just celebrating adding more space.

They were marking the beginning of the end of having sixth graders in elementary schools.

When Ray Reynolds Middle School opens its doors in the fall of 2020, sixth-grade students throughout the district will be in new schools.

Video from earlier this year shows site work for Columbia River Elementary and Middle School #4 on Burns Road in Pasco. The school board named the middle school for longtime Pasco educator Ray Reynolds. Both open to students in August 2020.

The additional 1,100 spots at the Burns Road building will mark the first time in several years that the Pasco School District has close to enough space to have sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders all together in the middle schools. .

Officials initially pulled sixth-graders from Ochoa, Stevens and McLoughlin middle schools in 2015 as a way to make room in their crowded halls. That came in response to a failed bond attempt in 2011 that would have included a fourth middle school.

Pasco continued to balk at putting another middle school on the ballot, since Stevens and Ochoa had more than enough space after the sixth-graders were gone.

But as school district officials worked to put together the $99.5 million bond that passed in November 2017, board members added the middle school project along with plans to move the sicth-graders back. They cemented those plans earlier this year when they passed a long-range facilities plan.

Enrollment growth has been strong

Pasco schools have been battling for nearly 20 years to find enough space for their students. The enrollment grew by more than 10,000 since 2000 across all grades.

About 1,400 of those students are sixth-graders. With just under 3,000 spots in middle schools and 7,600 places in elementary schools in 2018, having them at either level made things cramped.

When Ray Reynolds Middle School opens — along with Columbia River (August 2020) and Three Rivers (August 2019) elementary schools — children should have close to enough space in the middle schools. District officials predict they will have room for more than 9,000 elementary students and 4,000 middle school students.

Randy Nunamaker, Pasco School District capital projects director, gives details about the start of construction for two new Pasco schools off Burns Road.

The bond and building plan is an aggressive approach to tackling overcrowding in Pasco. It’s a move that Superintendent Michelle Whitney said district officials are proud of and is part of a larger 20-year plan they’ve laid out for new buildings.

Moving sixth-graders from middle schools to elementary schools in 2015 proved controversial for the district at the time. Teachers were concerned about moving from teaching a single subject to teaching every subject.

It’s unknown how parents and teachers will react to the move back to middle schools, but at least one group of parents and educators agreed to it. The 30-member Community Builders Group, which helped put together the 2017 bond, supported it when they laid out the plan.

Research on having sixth-graders in middle or elementary schools is mixed, with some people reporting only small changes and others showing significant differences.

Transition is a work in progress

Whitney expects the move will give the district another year to prepare students for high school, and it’s often that transition from eighth to ninth grade that proves the riskiest for kids.

“As sixth grade moves to the middle school, that sixth, seventh, eighth grade configuration will help us target a program for sixth-graders that will help them take advantage of the middle school experience,” Whitney said.

How the switch will happen is still a work in progress, said Whitney and district spokesman Shane Edinger. The first meetings with teachers are expected to happen before the end of the school year.

It’s unknown if more teachers will need to be hired or if there are already enough to cover the transition. The district will be working with the Pasco Association of Educators to talk about how to make the transition.

One thing is clear: Pasco administrators want teachers and parents to be involved.

“They can be looking for information in the fall about what will be happening in the following school year,” Edinger said.

Cameron Probert covers breaking news and education for the Tri-City Herald, where he tries to answer readers’ questions about why police officers and firefighters are in your neighborhood. He studied communications at Washington State University.