New buildings, programs coming for grades 6, 7, 8
By Marcy Stamper
When they return to school in the fall, sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders will find a specialized program focused on their academic and social needs and interests.
The Methow Valley School District is finalizing details of a new middle school program that will accommodate these three grades with a dedicated faculty, expressly tailored International Baccalaureate (IB) curriculum, and their own classrooms and gathering spaces in two new modular buildings on the school campus.
Several factors converged to make this the right time to launch the program, school administrators said at a meeting on Tuesday (March 30) about the proposal, where they answered questions and got feedback from the public.
The district has been contemplating a middle-school program for years. It was one of the main themes to emerge from the Dream Big event the school district held last year to brainstorm new initiatives. With the student body at the elementary level booming — it has doubled in the past eight years — and federal COVID funding available, the program became achievable.
When he reflects on his own time in middle school, Supt. Tom Venable remembers feeling like “an afterthought.” Having a more independent school for these students takes into account current research on academic and social development as well as feedback from teachers, parents and the students themselves, he said. The feedback on including sixth grade as part of the middle-school model has been overwhelmingly positive, he said.
The district plans to purchase two modular buildings that would each have two classrooms, plus office space and common areas. The buildings would be situated near Classroom in Bloom, the school garden, and close to Liberty Bell High School (LBHS). Sixth-grade students will still get most instruction in homeroom classes, rather than have a rotating block schedule, but they’ll have the option of taking electives at Liberty Bell. The students will have their own lunch period.
The modular facilities were the most economical solution. Similar buildings with four classrooms cost almost $2 million, but each two-classroom model costs about $300,000 and can easily be installed by fall, Venable said.
Sixth-grade teachers Carrie Fink and Tyler Slostad have been designing the new classrooms as well as academics. The district ordered buildings with extra windows for light and ventilation, a sturdier roof to accommodate snow, and covered ADA access.
The federal stimulus funding is intended to support the academic, social-emotional, and physical wellness of students over time. It can be used by school districts to promote healthy learning environments by making improvements to their facilities, Venable said.
Liberty Bell design and construction classes are already working on an outdoor learning space behind Classroom in Bloom, and they’ll likely be involved in designing aspects of the expansion, LBHS Principal Crosby Carpenter said.
The school has already made some changes to seventh and eighth grades. This year they added more experiential and outdoor learning opportunities, reduced the number of class periods in a day, and added electives including robotics, culinary arts, and anatomy and physiology, Carpenter said.
IB Middle Years Programme Coordinator Matt Hinckley noted that the IB program is already geared to this transition, with an emphasis on approaches to learning — how to organize assignments, manage time, and develop study skills — to supplement core academic subjects.
More space for all
Having middle school in separate modular classrooms will also help the elementary school, which is growing short on space.
When Venable arrived in the Methow eight years ago, the school had just topped 200 students. Before the pandemic, the student body (preschool through sixth grade) had increased to more than 400 kids, and they’ve since added another 20 students, Venable said.
The schools have always had transitional activities to prepare sixth-graders for moving up to the junior/senior high school. Those activities will now be focused on fifth-graders, Venable said.
Beloved activities like the sixth-grade campout and buddy program with younger students will continue. The staff will to consult fifth- and sixth-graders about what programs they like and what they might want to add, Carpenter said.
“We believe this shift is a win-win situation for all. It not only benefits 6th grade students, but students in grades preschool through 5th grade. The additional space at MVE [Methow Valley Elementary] will allow us to further lower class sizes by adding a third 4th-grade teacher, giving us three classroom teachers at every grade level except 5th grade,” Carpenter said by email.