Cass County Democrat Missourian

Middle-school gives way to junior high concept in Harrisonville

Chris Grantham
Chris Grantham

The Harrisonville School District is poised to abandon the middle school approach to education in favor of a junior high concept, starting this fall.

Administrators say the proposal, to be considered by the school board later this month, will permit the district to reduce class sizes, lengthen class periods and save money at the same time.

“We feel that this transformation will help our students achieve at higher levels across the curriculum,” Harrisonville Middle School Principal Chris Grantham said in a memo presented to the school board for its Feb. 19 meeting.

The middle school model puts teachers and students on “teams” so that all students on the team share the same group of teachers for core subjects. When educators began to embrace the middle school concept several decades ago, it was seen as a way to provide a more nurturing environment for children at a vulnerable stage in life. By communicating regularly, teachers on the team would be able more quickly to identify students who were having difficulty, and they could coordinate some learning activities across subject areas.

In his memo, Grantham said that teachers on the teams have two planning periods — one for teaming and one for personal planning — so that each core instructor teaches four of the seven periods in the school day, with one supervisory period as well. Teams have one teacher each for math, science, English language arts and social studies “grouped together to support our students’ social and emotional needs,” he said.

“The major problem with this model is the schedule is very rigid. It allows no flexibility,” he wrote. “Due to teachers only teaching four out of seven hours, our class sizes are artificially larger than need be. Also, the teaming process is focused on student behavior and not student academic achievement. Finally, we need a greater number of personnel to support this model.”

The proposed junior high would put teachers in the classroom for six of the seven periods, and their planning period would be shared with colleagues who teach the same subject area. Math teachers, for example, could collaborate with colleagues both within and across grade levels. It’s the team approach, Grantham said, that some researchers have found to be the most effective.

The change, he noted, will reduce class size and lengthen class periods, which also have been shown to boost achievement.

“Finally, we would have a great deal more flexibility in our schedule if changes are needed due to class sizes or loss of personnel.” he wrote.

Even with the smaller classes, said school district spokeswoman Jill Filer, the change would also would save the district money.

Michael Norman, a sixth-grade English teacher who has worked 15 years at Harrisonville Middle School, said that teachers have been asked for input on how to make the transition most beneficial for students.

“Generally, teachers have responded to the news with many questions,” he said by email. “I don’t get the impression from my colleagues that they are either drastically for or against this change. Instead, the attitude has been one of, ‘OK, this change is coming. How can we do the best possible job with it?’”

The smaller classes will be welcome, Norman said, as will the new opportunities for planning within subject areas.

“Teachers will undoubtedly plan with colleagues during some of their planning time, and they will consult with teachers of other grades more often,” he said. “ Many educators at HMS have witnessed the power of collaboration, and we wouldn’t want to teach without it. Therefore, we are thankful that we will be able to plan together next year.”

However, Norman will miss the opportunity to consult with professionals who know the same students he teaches.

“Also, some teachers who currently teach only one grade will be teaching multiple grades next year, which will add to their work in planning lessons,” he said. “Fortunately, I do see some benefits to accompany these challenges.”