Time and Space: The Benefits of a Grades 6 -12 Model
by Jody Andres AIA LEED AP and Rob Koehler
This article originally appeared in the May 2018 School Business Affairs magazine and is reposted with permission of the Association of School Business Officials International (ASBO). The text herein does not necessarily represent the views or policies of ASBO International, and use of this imprint does not imply any endorsement or recognition by ASBO International and its officers or affiliates.
Rural school districts are increasingly faced with aging facilities and dwindling numbers of students as families move to urban areas for increased opportunities. In response, some districts are choosing a different model for their schools: the grades 6 – 12 secondary school model.
"Rural school districts are increasingly faced with aging facilities and dwindling numbers of students as families move to urban areas for increased opportunities."
K-12 Market Leader
Berlin Area School district serves a rural community in Wisconsin, 20 minutes west of Oshkosh. Several years ago, the district considered what to do with the aging middle school facility, which was built in 1918 and expanded in 1954 and 1985. After much study, district officials decided that the best solution to provide for its 375 middle school students was to build an addition to the current high school.
By combining the buildings, the district accomplished four objectives: (1) to create opportunities for advanced studies for the middle school students, (2) to eliminate duplication of underused spaces, (3) to eliminate travel time for teachers who had previously taught on both campuses (the original middle school was four blocks from the high school), and (4) to offer improved spaces for both middle and high school students.
Benefits went beyond saving space and reducing construction costs. Research shows that students’ transition from one school building to another as they move through their schooling can negatively affect academic achievement. The shift brings not only a different facility but also new teachers, administrators, and classmates. Additionally, they are confronted with different expectations, policies, and procedures.
The opportunity to address that key factor arises when reconfiguring a school district’s physical facilities, as Berlin did.
Expansion of Offerings
The ability to expand curriculum and programs by maximizing space and staff is a substantial part of the decision to implement a 6-12 model and is easily justifiable.
For example, although it might have previously been considered extravagant to have an orchestra program or more than one offering of a foreign language for middle school students, the economics change when the buildings are combined.
Many middle schools already offer such programs to their younger students, but they must often transport them to another campus or have teachers drive from one campus to another. In the 6-12 model, younger students can take higher-level math or a foreign language or participate in an orchestra simply by walking down a hallway.
Additional opportunities are also available for the younger students to enroll in technical education, special programs, and programs related to STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics).
By eliminating or reducing duplication throughout the district, the 6 – 12 model is economical. It has fewer maintenance costs, reduced energy demands, and more productivity.
In addition to the combined middle and high school, Berlin Area School district has a separate K-5 elementary school located on the opposite side of the block. In the past, 4 buses picked up the middle school students at the end of each school day and dropped them off at the elementary school where 12 more awaited. Once the elementary and middle school students were on the appropriate buses, all 16 buses went to the high school to load students for various drop-off routes.
Combining the middle school and high school allowed for a central parking area behind the building where all the students could assemble for bus drop-off and pickup. Parents drop off or pick up students in front of the school, reducing congestion and frustration.
To further maximize the benefits of this area, it is gated to keep out traffic during regular school hours, providing a hard-surface play area for recess.
And, of course, operational efficiencies are realized through the use of shared areas – such as technical education, kitchen and cafeteria spaces, a wrestling/cheerleading/multipurpose room, and weight and cardio areas.
This setup is an ideal configuration for peer tutoring and Big Brother Big Sister – type opportunities. For example, sociology students mentor middle school special education students weekly; younger students have lunch with their high school mentors quarterly; and older students help judge middle school science fairs.
These enhanced opportunities provide much coveted public service hours for older students while increasing their skills in coaching, mentoring, and tutoring. The younger students benefit from the additional support and a stronger connection to the high school environment.
The middle school and high school can each have their own unique identity, or the identity can encompass the entire 6 -12 facilities. Various aspects should be considered when making that determination, including (1) the history of the middle school and high school, (2) the number of students involved, (3) current and desired staffing models (4) the number of middle schools that feed into the high school, and (5) the number of high schools in the district.
Although an addition to the high school building, Berlin Middle School maintains its own identity through an exterior that retains the thematic elements of the original high school, yet it changes the field color of the brick and provides separate entrances and offices, classrooms, gymnasium and locker rooms, science labs, art room, and library media center.
Alignment with Curriculum
Significant amounts of time and space have been devoted to studying the ideal grade alignment – where do the fifth graders belong, what is the best point for a transition between schools, or do our students experience too many transitions in their K-12 years?
In the same way that no one set curriculum works for every school and district, neither is there a right or wrong way to address grade configurations.
As a true with Berlin Area School District, every district must evaluate the configuration model that best fits its community and its curriculum, facilities, and assets.
In Berlin, taxpayers appreciated the 94,000-square-foot attached middle school for the innovative nature of the solution. This value was heightened when the old school building was sold and remodeled into apartments.
The team of decision makers at the Berlin Area School District methodically examined critical areas, sought input, obtained buy-in, made astute decisions, and delivered a great solution to their students, staff members, and community.
Jody Andres is a senior project architect and the K-12 market leader at Hoffman Planning, Design & Construction Inc.