A proposal to move sixth graders in the fall to middle schools from elementary schools drew a lot of criticism during a Kent School Board virtual public hearing.
Mostly, parents opposed making the change in the 2021-2022 school year because students have been in remote learning since March due to COVID-19. They said children have enough stress to handle when they finally return to the classroom without the additional pressures of going from fourth grade in March 2020 to a middle school in fall 2021, with all of their fifth-grade year spent so far in remote learning.
“I have concerns about moving sixth graders to middle school,” one mother said during the Jan. 13 public hearing when district staff read 113 comments. “I understand the need to create space in the elementary schools but. …it’s too much impact on fifth graders now. Online (learning) was a needed solution to an exceptional problem. Let’s wait another year to enact big changes.”
The Kent School District is redrawing its school boundaries for the first time in a dozen years due to the opening of a new elementary school (River Ridge) next fall on the West Hill.
Florida-based MGT Consulting Group, hired by the district to examine boundary changes, recommends that sixth graders be moved into middle schools for the 2021-2022 school year primarily because of overcrowding in elementary schools.
“There are insufficient seats at elementary schools and excess seats at middle and high schools,” said Rob Tanner, of MGT Consulting Group, during a school board workshop Jan. 13 when the company released its final report.
Nine of 28 elementary schools are at or over their designed capacity while none of the middle schools (seventh and eighth grade) and only one of the four high schools (Kent-Meridian) are over their designed capacity, according to the School Boundary Review final report by MGT Consulting Group.
Tanner said that online community engagement meetings in December drew 173 participants in three sessions. He reported that 56% liked the proposed boundary changes and 73% thought sixth graders should move to middle schools. A total of 81% agreed with feeder strands, keeping the same students together from elementary through high school.
School board director Leslie Hamada questioned the consultants about the low number of participants.
“I’ve heard that people are just waking up to the boundary discussion and some people feel they were not included,” Hamada said during the workshop. “A total of 173 participants in a large district like this doesn’t seem like a great example. Have you found elsewhere turnout that low?”
Michael Raisor, MGT Consulting Group senior vice president, responded to Hamada.
“I think 173 is a pretty healthy turnout even in a district larger than Kent,” Raisor said. “We had the most phenomenal survey turnout that we have ever had. People felt their voice was heard and had the chance to share their opinions.”
An online survey in October to get responses to a series of questions about boundary changes had a total of 7,579 respondents.
“If people felt they were not included, 22,027 families were invited over email, 15,000 by text and multiple reminders sent to each family and signs were posted outside of schools,” said Kasey Price of MGT Consulting Group, about the fall survey.
Parents also voiced concerns during the public hearing that moving sixth graders to middle schools might overcrowd those schools. Hamada said people had contacted her with similar concerns.
“They will be at higher capacity, but you have the capacity you need,” Tanner said. “It’s also important for sixth graders going to middle school so you can align grade levels and equitably distribute programs.”
The former Sequoia Junior High, which now houses Kent Phoenix Academy and Kent Mountain View Academy until they move to a new school in the fall, will become a middle school to help handle the overcrowding of elementary schools.
Sequoia can handle an estimated 850 to 900 students on the low end and 1,000 on high end, Tanner said.
David Bussard, school district director of Capital Planning & Facilities, said that Sequioa would be ready to go in the fall.
“We have kids in there now,” Bussard said. “It’ll take minor touch-ups and repairs.”
Tanner said the overcrowding of elementary schools is an obvious thing, and that’s why they tried to adjust boundaries. By moving about 2,000 sixth graders into middle schools will result in about 1,750 excess seats in elementary schools.
But Tanner emphasized to the board that a plan for new facilities also needs to be prepared.
“It’s not a true fix,” Tanner said of the boundary changes. “You need a comprehensive facility master plan, for where you need new construction or additions to reduce overcrowding.”
The district also has about 170 portables in use. District staff were uncertain how many portables would be needed with the proposed boundary changes.
The board is scheduled to vote on the boundary proposal on Jan. 27 at its regular 7 p.m. virtual meeting. The board has just four members after Leah Bowen resigned last month to devote more time to her family. A replacement is expected to be chosen by the board on Jan. 28.
Board Director Maya Vengadasalam said at the workshop she was pleased with the boundary review report.
“It’s balancing enrollment, reducing transportation and providing equitable programming, which is a challenge, and it aligns feeder strands,” Vengadasalam said. “I’m happy to see how the analysis turned out.”
Hamada said she had a few worries about the changes proposed in the final review.
“Voting on an all or nothing is a concern to me to vote on this as a package,” Hamada said. “I’d like to see the plan maybe done in waves. …things we have to do before we move on to another change. …Sixth grade moving up I’ve heard a mixed bag of responses, but there are concerns during a pandemic year the change is way too much.”