Living & Learning: Combination schools booming, blurring lines in South Florida

Schools combining elementary and middle grades, and even high school grades, are increasingly popular with parents and researchers who say students perform better.

08/03/2014 3:16 PM

08/03/2014 5:27 PM

Monica Rivera’s teenage daughter Brianna will likely never know what it’s like to attend middle school.

And mom couldn’t be happier.

Last year, in response to the clamoring of parents, her daughter’s Homestead elementary became one of the latest South Florida elementary schools to add a sixth grade and begin the slow process of converting to a so-called “elemiddle.”

“I knew my daughter wasn’t going into a new school, new environment, new friends, new teachers, new administration, new everything,” said Rivera, whose daughter attends Air Base K-8 Center. “It was really a relief.”

Scores of South Florida schools are making the jump to “combination schools,” which blur the lines between the traditional elementary, middle and high school grades. A novelty just 15 years ago, the schools have exploded in number, particularly in Miami-Dade County as parents clamor and school boards take note of evidence that students may actually perform better.

In the case of Airbase K-8, parents say they pushed for the change to add sixth, seventh and eighth grades because they were dismayed by local middle schools and liked the elementary so much they wanted their kids to stay longer. They found a willing partner in a district that now has almost as many K8 centers as middle schools and continues to play with different grade combinations.

“It’s a direct response to parental demand,” said Miami-Dade Superintendent Alberto Carvalho.

The Miami-Dade school district now runs about 50 combination schools, most of them K8 centers, where Carvalho and some researchers say data shows students are outpacing their peers in middle schools. The Broward school board has been far less aggressive, which officials attribute to a lack of demand. But the school board expects to double its stock of combination schools from three to six when classes resume in the fall.

Charter schools, meanwhile, have been swifter to adapt and as of last year there were about 80 combination schools in Dade and Broward featuring a blend of the typical grade settings, including schools that host students from kindergarten all the way through the 12th grade.

In some cases, converting a school can prove costly, and it’s not always embraced. But for parents, all the changes mean more options and perhaps more time to keep their kids closer to the nest.

“When kids go to middle schools and reinvent themselves, that’s when you have problems. So there’s something to be said about running into your kindergarten teacher,” said Miami-Dade School Board member Raquel Regalado, whose district includes a MAST Academy undergoing an expansion to host middle school and high school grades.

Elemiddles were actually once the norm in the U.S back in the early 1900s before public school systems began to split up seventh, eighth and ninth graders into junior highs. Then in the 1970s, school systems phased out junior highs in favor of middle schools.

Private schools, for the most part, never embraced middle schools. And public schools are now backtracking to the days when students didn’t leave their first school until they became teenagers, something that has pleased a number of parents.

When Miami-Dade moved to open its first elemiddle school in 1998 on Key Biscayne, the school board expected it to be a unique trial. But as soon as news got out the Key Biscayne’s elementary would expand to include older students, parents around the county called on the school board to convert schools in their neighborhoods.

By 2009, Broward County had opened its first elemiddle, and a total of 27 combination schools had been built or converted in South Florida. Five years later, that number has multiplied fivefold, and new configurations have been created.

Parents, schools officials and researchers point to a number of reasons for the boom in combination schools. In a recent study based on Florida standardized test results, Harvard professor Martin West found that students suffer a serious and lasting drop in academic performance when they move from fifth grade into a middle school. He said they’re also more likely to drop out of school.

But those academic woes aren’t seen when students attend K-8 centers, and a less pronounced drop for students entering high school is likewise reduced for those who attend schools that blur middle and high school grades, according to West.

There are other reasons for the increasing demand for K8 centers and combination schools. There’s the convenience of being able to drop children of different ages at one single school. And competition has been a motivator, as school districts try to offer different programs and school configurations to compete with the growing number of charter schools.

Another driver is safety and security. Rivera, whose daughter attends the new Airbase K8, said her older daughter attended a middle school, and she felt there were some things she was exposed to by other students that were probably inappropriate.

“Sometimes I think they’re a little too young” for middle school, said Rivera. “They’re so protected in elementaries and you just throw them out there into middle schools. It’s a whole different vibe.”

In some cases, parents are actually uncomfortable with combination schools when older students are grouped together. Jacqueline Hoy, founder of the International School of Broward in Hollywood, said she often has to answer questions about safety because the charter school she founded combines grades six through 12.

“They are concerned, and that’s a question that’s often asked. But in a smaller school like ours, it’s like a family and everyone takes care of each other,” she said.

Elsewhere in Broward, the school board is opening combination schools this fall in Coral Springs, North Lauderdale and Miramar. District administrator Leslie Brown said the cities of Hollywood and Hallandale Beach have also talked about wanting combination schools.

“It’s not easy because it’s change. And people, even though they do like the concept, it creates a change,” said Brown. “We want to make sure we keep a pulse on this practice.”

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