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Rochester restructures grade levels in schools

Rochester Community Schools is planning a restructuring – not of its academic process but of where it houses students and why.

Starting with the coming school year some grade levels will move up a building.

With a planned expansion of preschool at Columbia Elementary School, second-graders will move to Riddle Elementary School. Riddle’s fifth-graders will move to Rochester Middle School, and the RMS eighth-graders will now attend Eighth Grade Academy in one wing at Rochester High School.

The plan sprung from various board discussions about better meeting career pathway requirements for middle- and high-schoolers, a lack of space for the growing preschool program, wanting to increase academic performance and goal-setting for Rochester Superintendent Jana Vance by the school board, among other things.

It uses building and staff resources in the most responsible way, Vance said Wednesday. “We’re just better utilizing our facilities and what we have available … to meet community needs and improve academically, without having to build a new building,” she said.

The board is set to vote on the plan at its April 19 board meeting.

There’s no one reason for the switch, Vance said. It was precipitated by several reasons.

First, preschool needs to expand. Discussions about that began about four years ago with Columbia Principal Jason Snyder.

Preschool not only provides an educational foundation, but social and emotion growth that sets children up for success in kindergarten and beyond. Rochester recognized that need several years ago.

There’s a waiting list extending out a couple years for the Columbia preschool classes. “For community growth, young families need access,” she said.

For students in the rest of the elementary grades, the switch will allow for a better alignment of Title I services – for those students considered at risk. The Title I program provides federal grant money for the hiring of staff.

If we move the building levels it sets Riddle up better academically in regards to those students having better aligned Title I and tiered supports. That’s important, Vance said, because better Title I services can lead to success on state mandated tests that start at Riddle.

Putting fifth-graders at the middle school and moving eighth-graders at the high school cuts down on a lot of travel for the eighth-graders, and subsequent lack of class time, Vance said.

“Some eighth-graders are making three trips a day to the high school,” Vance said. “It’s not good use of their time or teacher time and resources.”

The state requires what are called Next Level Career Pathways for students, where they choose earlier than they used to – in late middle school – what direction their secondary education will take. The pathways are meant to help students achieve basic career education, including certifications and post-secondary credentials while still in high school so Indiana can prepare its workforce for high-paying, high-skills jobs in the manufacturing, construction, technology, health and agriculture industries, among others.

“We can introduce eighth-graders earlier,” Vance said. “They can see the opportunities and be able to understand needed credits and courses. We think we can give all middle school students one or two credits for those pathways …” she said.

The eighth-grade academy will be in what is now the agriculture and technology wing. There are enough empty spaces there for math, science and social studies classes for the eighth-graders without impinging on the ag and tech class spaces. There will be a separate entrance for the eighth-graders as well.

Vance said the plan helps her meet three new goals set by the school board: better providing the steps to reach higher academic success; growing career and technical education opportunities; and better marketing of the schools.

The last time Rochester Community Schools switched up grade levels at schools was maybe in the late 1980s or early 1990s, but Vance isn’t sure when. That’s when Riddle and Columbia went from being kindergarten-grade 5 at each school to kindergarten-second at Columbia and grades three-five at Riddle.

The change in location for students doesn’t change the education they’ll get. The same curriculum and same programming will happen, just in a different place.

“We need parents to understand we are not changing the second-grade curriculum. We’re not changing the fifth-grade schedule. They’re still going to have recess time, the fifth-graders. We still want that to look the same. It’s just going to happen at a different area of our school corporation,” Vance said. There won’t be any change in sports, or extracurricular activities either.

Vance said the way teachers at the different grade levels work together won’t change either. “We already use professional development for vertical articulation. That has to happen,” she said of planning curriculum so it meets up from grade to grade. “We hope to see a different level of communication.” Teachers may now see the differences between buildings and hopefully use that information to explain what students need as they move between the traditional elementary, middle and high school levels of classes.

Vance said parents with questions can turn to the schools’ web pages to see a commonly asked questions fact sheet. There’s also a specific email address for parents and stakeholders to use for sending questions: RCSC. Restructure@zebras.net.

At this point, Vance said, the only identified cost for the program is re-outfitting one room with technology. No new staff, curriculum, furnishings, etc., are anticipated.

“I really, really do get parents are trying to wrap themselves emotionally around this,” Vance said of the mental milestones they have when their children switch schools. “When your kid is in Columbia they’re still your baby. When they go to middle school you’ve got a pre-teen with the hormonal and emotional changes.”

To help ease the transition there will be expanded orientation activities. The Riddle to Middle days during the summer will be expanded to include this year’s fourth and fifth graders. Freshman Academy will include seventh- and eighth-graders this summer.