A Cautious Opening Move

A need for more classrooms and a desire to improve student achievement contributed to the decision by the Capistrano Unified School District to offer a K-8 school option for parents recently.

The two-year journey began as a consequence of overcrowding at our 10 middle schools. In one section of the district, we had spent several years unsuccessfully locating an appropriate site for a new middle school. We then decided to look at existing elementary schools for options.

One of the area’s K-5 elementary schools, Arroyo Vista, had once housed nearly 1,300 students, but its enrollment had declined to fewer than 800 students and remained on a downhill trend. Its feeder middle school housed 1,800 students in grades 6-8. Rather than relocate the elementary students and reconfigure Arroyo Vista as a middle school, we decided to explore the expansion of the school to serve students K-8 within its existing attendance zone.

Staff embarked on a research, planning and approval process. This covered five school board meetings, two public hearings, numerous information meetings for residents, parents, employees and students, several meetings with the city planning commissions and the city council, and preparation of extensive required environmental impact studies.

Staff carefully reviewed literature on K-8 models nationwide, including the findings on grade configuration, grade-level cohort size and transition achievement losses (see Sidebar). Our staff was impressed by the evidence showing a true K-8 model, where a school maintains the same attendance boundaries for grades K-8 and offers a “best practices” instructional program for each age group, does improve student achievement.

Enthusiastic Board

During the research phase, the staff also heard from principals, teachers and parents who stressed the potential of a K-8 school to provide social benefits for children by helping shelter students from deleterious aspects of teen-age life. Many parents expressed strong support for keeping young teens in smaller school populations where teachers can more closely monitor their education.

At the end of the lengthy consultation process, the school board approved the project enthusiastically, not simply to decrease crowding in the community’s middle school, but just as importantly to boost student performance. We moved forward in August 2004 with the addition of a 6 th-grade middle school program at Arroyo Vista School. The 7 th and 8 th grades will be added sequentially as the students move on to the next grade.

Trustees have made the K-8 school an option for neighborhood parents as part of our tradition of offering program choice. By creating dual enrollment, trustees made sure parents choose either to continue through 8 th grade at the elementary campus or to move their child to the local middle school beginning in 6 th grade.

The staff is now upgrading and expanding the campus to accommodate special requirements for a middle school. By removing aging portable classrooms and replacing them with new two-story modular-style buildings, we can create sufficient classroom space, including up-to-date science and technology labs. This also will create a courtyard for grades 6-8, distinct from the K-5 students.

Through a joint-use agreement, the neighboring community park will be available for middle school physical education activity, minimizing the impact on existing K-5 playground activities. The new buildings, along with parking lot improvements, will improve the school’s overall appearance.

When fully operational, the Arroyo Vista K-8 will reduce the population of the nearby middle school by nearly 400 students to fewer than 1,400.

Overcoming Opposition

The process is not without challenges, of course. From the outset, a small, vocal, politically savvy group of neighbors—most of whom had no children in the school—was determined to do everything in its power to derail the project.

Our most powerful strategy in gaining support was effective communication. We created a K-8 page on our district website (www.capousd.org/k8config.htm). We invited parents and teachers from successful K-8 schools in a neighboring school district to speak at a community forum. We attended community organization and city council meetings, and we held many neighborhood coffee klatches. The principal identified key parent leaders who were excited about the K-8 concept and encouraged them to speak out about the benefits.

In addition, we built the confidence and enthusiasm of 5 th-grade parents and students by the early selection of highly regarded, energetic teachers and administrators for the K-8 school and through a video showing examples of classroom programs and school activities that would be available.

The school board stayed the course to provide this option for parents because they viewed it as good for children. It provides the benefits of a smaller number of students per grade level, offers a better opportunity for adults in the school to know each student, eliminates an often-rocky transition for students, encourages parents to stay involved during their middle school years and includes a rigorous, middle school curriculum.

Future Conversions

The program is under way with 150 6 th-grade students with more than 90 percent of the outgoing 5 th-grade families opting to remain at their school. The additional seats were easily filled with requests from nearby district schools.

As word about the K-8 school has spread, parents in several other elementary schools now are asking the board consider their school for conversion to the K-8 model to provide the same option. We will carefully monitor the achievement of students in our initial effort as we consider future expansion.

James Fleming is superintendent of Capistrano Unified School District, 32972 Calle Perfecto, San Juan Capistrano, CA 92675. E-mail: superintendent@capousd.org