6th-Graders: Where Do They Belong? Two Board Members in Duval Want Elementary School Extended

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Byline: MARY KELLI PALKA

When children hit the sixth grade, their worlds start to change.

It's partially the hormones, when they physically and emotionally grow. Plus, there's a change in the dynamics in their family and in their relationships with their parents as they start to become more independent.

And in Duval County, as with most of the state of Florida, it's when children switch from the comfort of their elementary schools to the larger, more mature middle-school setting.

That's too soon, Duval County School Board members Stan Jordan and W.C. Gentry say.

Jordan and Gentry want the school district to consider expanding at least some elementary schools to serve sixth-graders and put off by a year their transition to middle school. The proposal brings up the question of whether sixth-graders are better off in elementary or middle schools.

There's no clear evidence that supports one argument over the other.

Gentry brought up the idea at this month's board meeting, hoping to better utilize elementary schools that are below capacity rather than close them. He and Jordan also hope keeping sixth-graders in elementary school could help deal with discipline issues in the first year of middle school. They have just begun researching information to see if the statistics support their claim.

During the 2006-07 school year, 169 fifth-graders were held back in Duval County. The next year, as sixth-graders, 617 were retained.

Violations of the student code of conduct took an even bigger jump: There were about 3,200 for fifth-graders in 2006-07 and almost 26,000 when they were sixth-graders the next year, according to Jordan's figures.

But other board members think a new school, not a new grade, is the problem. And delaying that transition would just put off the problem for another year.

Board member Vicki Drake said having sixth grade in the middle school is a benefit because students can take more advanced classes, such as Algebra I.

Board vice chairwoman Brenda Priestly Jackson said the district just formed K-8 schools a few years ago, and it needs to fully implement that concept before starting another model. She thinks the focus needs to be more on helping children transition from one school to another.

Superintendent Ed Pratt-Dannals said that although moving sixth-graders to elementary schools may make better use of those schools, it would just transfer the problem of under-utilized schools to the middle schools.

Gentry was out of town for the last workshop. But he told the Times-Union he would still like to discuss the sixth-grade issue in March with the rest of the board.

Only four counties in Florida have most of their sixth-graders in elementary schools. The only one in Northeast Florida is Clay County, which moved its sixth-graders from middle schools to elementary schools in the late 1980s, said Sharon Chapman, the assistant superintendent for instruction.

Chapman said the move had nothing to do with discipline or retention issues. Instead, she said the move was mostly to alleviate overcrowding in middle schools. …