6th-graders are moving back to middle schools in Pasco. Some parents are worried

Krysti Jenson is worried about what will happen when her son heads to middle school next year.

While the Pasco mother’s youngest child will be going into seventh grade, she is concerned about the school district’s decision to take sixth-graders out of elementary schools for the first time in four years.

“Sixth grade should not be put back into middle school,” she said. “That’s a lot of space that they’re going to have to get used to. That’s a lot of adjustment they’re going to have to go through.”

She’s not the only one feeling that way.

Jenson was one of several parents concerned about the change that will happen when Ray Reynolds Middle School opens next fall.

The Pasco School District plans its first summit Thursday to hear from parents of fourth- and fifth-graders. The meeting is at 6 p.m. at the Pasco School District administration building at 1215 W. Lewis Street.

In 2015, district officials pulled sixth-graders out of Ochoa, Stevens and McLoughlin middle schools to ease crowded classrooms.

That moved came after voters rejected a bond in 2011 that would have built a fourth middle school to handle the influx of students.

The $99.5 million bond that passed in November 2017 included the middle school project along with plans to move the sixth-graders out of elementary schools.

The additional 1,100 spots at the Burns Road school 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 middle schools.

Mixed response

Research is mixed on what’s best for the sixth-graders.

Some say they perform better if they continue to have the support available in elementary schools. Others say the preteens do well when they have the freedom to explore earlier.

Putting them at the middle school offers them more chances to explore academic options, said Jenny Rodriquez, Pasco’s executive director of secondary education.

When they’re in elementary school, they only have access to a limited number of special classes, like music or physical education, she noted.

Once they’re in middle school, they have access to a wider variety, from cooking to robotics.

She said the move can give students more time to expand their knowledge and learn what they’re passionate about.

“I think for the kids, every transition that we have is challenging,” Rodriquez said. “It can create some anxiety both for the students and for their parents. We see very similar excitement and worries when students go into ninth-grade.”

Spending three years in middle school also gives educators a year longer to know the students and their families before they’re into high school.

Next year, Pasco students in the sixth grade will attend school at middle school instead of elementary school. Noelle Haro-Gomez Tri-City Herald

Throughout the state, it’s much more common to have sixth-graders in middle school, Rodriquez said. Richland and Kennewick use that model.

If not for the overcrowding issues, Pasco would have stayed with three-year middle schools, said officials.

Parents like Johnson are concerned their children aren’t ready to mix in with older students, other parents commenting on the district’s Facebook page disagree.

Learning standards change at the sixth-grade level for English language arts, so moving sixth-graders will make it easier for teachers since those students will be in an environment that already shares those standards, noted one parent.

Another parent complained that their second- and fifth-graders hear cursing and more adult subjects from sixth-graders at their elementary school.

Reached out early

Shortly after the start of the school year, the district reached out to parents to hear their concerns. Along with scheduling the summit, they created a website and a survey asking for opinions about the move.

They had 57 responses last week, and about two-thirds of those were interested in going to the meeting, said Robin Hay, the planning principal for Columbia River Elementary and Ray Reynolds Middle School.

She’s helping to shape the transition by collecting the information, and she wants to know whether parents have questions about the transition academically, socially or emotionally. That could include what kind of sports or clubs might be available.

“If parents want to make sure their sixth-graders are kept together and maybe kept a little away from the older children — by having a sixth-grade lunch or when they go for their time outside” — they should offer their ideas, she said.

“I think it’s important to know that we’re really excited to have them back in the middle school,” she said. “We think it’s going to be great for them.”

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.