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Middle school consolidation still on districts radar

Parents and residents in the Oregon Trail School District continue to express concerns about the idea of creating a unified middle school at the former Sandy High School site -- now referred to as the Pioneer Building -- in the future.

But district officials and task force members reiterate the Pioneer Building provides the opportunity to think big and to expand academic opportunities.

'As we prepare to open a new 21st-century high school, we have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to think creatively about the innovative program options and school choices we could provide our students,' said Aaron Baker, district superintendent. 'We need to be thoughtful and wise in designing effective, efficient and equitable learning experiences for all of our children.'

Still, lingering questions from 18 parents and residents at Monday night's Facility Task Force meeting touched on the safety of the building, cost of retrofitting it and comparisons of research about small versus large schools and their educational achievement.

'I'm hoping the task force will explore all options as vigorously as it has this unified middle school option,' said Kathy Rees, who lives within the school district and spoke at the task force meeting. 'I'm concerned we're making a huge jump.

'There's all kinds of special programs that are currently going on. How can we make our current programs better?' she added.

Also a concern is the unique culture of small-town mountain schools, specifically Welches Middle School, that could be disrupted if the school closed and the students were bused into Sandy.

Most of all, those who spoke at the meeting said they want to see broader input from parents, residents, teachers and administrators as the Facility Task Force continues its work.

Ginnie Whitlock of Sandy is the parent of students who attend Sandy Grade School and Cedar Ridge Middle School.

'I'm disappointed with the communication between the district and community,' she said. 'Regardless of what your opinion is, I think it's super important for people to know what's going on with the middle school, that there are meetings, that this task force exists.

'There are a lot of questions and concerns that need to be answered from the task force. I hope a lot more communication opens up and that the community can be more involved,' she added.

To this, task force members responded that the committee members represent each region of the district and each district's specific concerns.

At the beginning of the meeting, district representatives distributed a fact sheet that details what has changed since 2008 when the committee recommended building a new high school.

Along with having a new superintendent as of last summer, the district cited the following developments that gave life to the idea of combining the middle school under one roof:

• Under Common Core State Standards, an initiative launched more than a year ago by state leaders and adopted by Oregon in October 2010, education will become increasingly rigorous, with a greater focus on college and career readiness. Students will have to perform at a higher level and be compared to students across the nation.

Because recent eighth-grade student achievement rates hover around 69.8 percent, the district is concerned about meeting middle school students' needs and helping them to meet these higher standards.

• Because Mt. Hood Community College is implementing online community education courses, it no longer needs the classrooms it anticipated needing four years ago. This was one of the original possibilities proposed for the Pioneer Building.

• The Oregon Trail School District is working toward a blended learning program for grades six through 12 that will combine virtual and web-based programming with classroom instruction. The district anticipates this program will grow beyond 300 students in coming years.

In addition, the Oregon Trail Primary Academy will expand with a middle school program in the next few years, adding about 90 students. This means if the unified middle school plan moves forward, the school size more likely would be around 750-800 students, not 1,050.

To be clear, a unified middle school would not be implemented this fall but in the long-term future, if approved. The Pioneer Building would require retrofitting regardless of what it becomes, but there's no estimate yet for what this would cost.

Some possible funding sources the committee has explored for remodeling the building or other district facilities are a construction excise tax, liquidation of district property and interest earnings on bond proceeds.

District officials say unification of the middle schools will allow for more efficient use of public education dollars, but more importantly will give all students at the school equity in educational programming.

For example, Welches Middle School does not have a choir, while Cedar Ridge and Boring middle schools share a band teacher. And there is only one middle school teacher in the district trained in Project Lead the Way, an engineering program.

Placed under one roof, district officials say, the unified school could provide more flexible grouping of students and more flexible course scheduling, the ability to match learning styles of students to the instruction style of teachers, more specialization among teachers, and more core class and elective opportunities, among other benefits.

'We're still in discussion mode,' said Debbie Johnson, director of teaching and learning. 'Middle years are very important to high school success. What does the program design look like that will best engage those adolescent minds and emotions in a way that prepares them for the rigors of high school?'

In June, the task force will put forth a recommendation to the school board, which will make the ultimate decision about the plan.

Still at the forefront of district officials' and task force members' minds are the logistics of transportation, traffic, middle school capacities and many other details.

Two school board representatives, Chairman Norm Trost and Terry Lenchitsky, stressed that the board would need to see a figure of what retrofitting would cost and how it would weigh compared to the educational benefit for middle school students. Because research and planning around the unification are still in their early stages, the district has not yet sought bids on what retrofitting would cost.

The Portland State University population study will be presented at the next school board meeting at 6 p.m. Monday, Feb. 13, at Cedar Ridge Middle School.

The next Facility Task Force meeting is scheduled for 6 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 23.

For more information, and to see minutes from its twice-monthly meetings, visit the school board section of oregontrailschools.com.