Theresa Harrington/EdSource Today
Eighth-grade students discuss women's history during a social studies class at Mira Vista Elementary in Richmond, one of two K-8 schools in West Contra Costa Unified.

For the past six years, students at Mira Vista Elementary in Richmond have had the option to finish 7th and 8th grade in their neighborhood school instead of moving onto middle school or leaving West Contra Costa Unified.

“I like Mira Vista because it’s almost like one big family and we’re all just really close and we’re close to our teachers,” said 8th-grader Brooke Roberts, 14, who lives in El Cerrito. “You get more one-on-one time with them and with the students.”

Mira Vista converted to a K-8 school starting in 2010-11. It is one of two elementary schools in the district that includes 7th and 8th grades. The other is Stewart Elementary in Pinole, the district’s first school to convert to K-8 in the 1990s.

The K-8 option has become so popular that the school board recently decided to expand three more of the 39 elementary schools in West Contra Costa Unified to K-8 starting next year:  Montalvin Manor Elementary in San Pablo and Peres and Verde elementary schools in Richmond.

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West Contra Costa Unified, a San Francisco Bay Area school district of nearly 30,000 students, includes Richmond and several surrounding communities. For several years, the district has had a problem with students leaving the district when they completed elementary school, which typically runs from kindergarten to 6th grade. The move to middle schools has been a time when some students leave the district and the board wanted to give families a reason to stay.

In K-6 schools, students often opt to leave the district to attend 7th grade at a charter or private school — or even transfer to another district. Reasons vary from preferring a bigger school with more class options and diversity — which is what middle schools offer  to seeking schools where the students have higher test scores. Going to a school in another district can be an option if a student’s parent works in the other district or if a transfer is approved for other reasons.

As a result of students leaving, the district has seen a significant drop in enrollment from 6th to 7th grades.

Overall, the district’s total enrollment has dropped by 2.2 percent over the past three years, while enrollment increased slightly this year.

In 2016-17, the district’s 7th grade saw a 12.6 percent drop is enrollment or 278 fewer students than 6th grade. That same year, 7th grade charter enrollment grew 68 percent or by 101 students over 6th grade charter enrollment the previous year.

Districts vary in how they configure their schools. Some middle schools can include grades 5-8; others can include 7-9. West Contra Costa is one of many districts across the country that has converted elementary schools to K-8 configurations over the past two decades. 

“There is a trend and I’ve been tracking it for about 30 years,” said David Hough, Dean of the College of Education at Missouri State University. “From about 2001 to 2010, there was a huge explosion of what I call ‘elemiddle schools’ that occurred all over the United States.”

He said the trend leveled off after that, but picked up again a couple of years ago. Hough is studying the most recent data and plans to release a new report in June, when his university will host a summit based on a movement to create an “Elemiddle School Association.”

The movement began when studies showed test scores for students in grades 7 and 8 dipped in middle school, but stayed strong in K-8 schools, he said.

In the fall, Montalvin Manor Elementary in San Pablo and Peres and Verde elementary schools in Richmond will add 7th grade, with plans to add 8th grade the following year. Principals from the schools said their students and parents are excited about being able to stay two more years.

Out of 34 6th-grade students at Montalvin, 28 want to stay next year, Principal Katherine Acosta-Verprauskus said Thursday. Of the six who are leaving, two want the middle school sports program, while others had siblings who had gone to the middle school and wanted that experience, she added.

“Some had already started the process to apply to charter schools and now have stopped that,” she told the board at a December meeting, adding that most families said they appreciate remaining in “the small space that knows them,” where some can continue to work with counselors. She said students were happy not to experience the “fear of transitioning to a much bigger campus” during this crucial time of adolescent development. Some parents with younger children at the school also appreciate being able to drop all of their kids off and pick them up in one location, she said.

In the past, 36 percent of Montalvin’s students have left the district after 6th grade, said Superintendent Matthew Duffy. Similarly, 18 to 20 percent of Peres’ students and 16 percent of Verde’s have typically left the district after 6th grade.

Students who want to go on to one of the district’s six middle schools will still have that option, Duffy said, noting the process will be the same as it is now at the district’s K-8 schools, where students are given the choice between staying or moving to middle school.

Since students from the three new K-8 schools would typically move onto Pinole or Helms middle schools, Duffy said he didn’t expect the small decrease in their enrollment to adversely affect them. From 2014-15 to 2016-17, Pinole Middle School’s enrollment fell by 24 students to 562, while Helms’ dropped by 42 students to 997.

When deciding which schools to expand, the school board favored schools where 6th grade test scores were higher than 7th grade scores in the neighborhood middle school. Other considerations were community interest and costs.

Duffy also pointed to positive school climate and culture surveys of parents at staff at the three elementary schools, which he said showed their strength. Teachers and parents from the schools echoed these sentiments.

“We believe in the potential of all our students,” said Rachel Ricker, who teaches 2nd grade at Verde. “This is in the Verde DNA. This is why we want to continue to support our students by expanding Verde to 8th grade.”

Parents Israel Rodriguez and Martina Aguilar said they believed their children would have better educational experiences in their smaller neighborhood schools.

The board voted 3-1 on Jan. 3 to approve the expansion, with the understanding that it could cost about $600,000 to add the necessary classrooms. Trustee Tom Panas voted against the expansion and Trustee Mister Phillips abstained, after both said they didn’t have enough information about additional costs and other data.

Phillips also said he feared that the elementary schools were more segregated because their students came from one neighborhood while middle schools drew students from multiple neighborhoods.

But Trustee Elizabeth Block, the former principal of a low-performing elementary school in another district, said some of her former students joined gangs in middle school.

“It’s a vulnerable time for kids,” she said. “I see the K-8 option as one that will stave off that intrusion into their lives. Kids are looking for family and they have that at Verde and the other two schools…How can you go wrong when the staff and the parents and the kids are really behind it?”

Trustee Madeline Kronenberg said the expansion was a “real example of us building on our strengths,” adding that she was “haunted by the idea of shrinkage and all the horrible repercussions of that.”

Although many teachers in the district leave after only a few years, Kronenberg said the teachers at the three elementary schools have indicated that they want to stay.

“This is the picture of retention,” she said. “This is what it looks like and this is what we’re desperately trying to create in our district.”

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