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Landon Waddell, 6, foreground, and Riley Duxbury, 8, dig a hole to "make a castle" on the Gertie Belle Rogers Elementary School playground Monday afternoon. The Mitchell School District is studying a change in the organization of elementary schools that would organize the schools by grade level rather than by neighborhoods. (Chris Huber/Republic Photo)
Landon Waddell, 6, foreground, and Riley Duxbury, 8, dig a hole to "make a castle" on the Gertie Belle Rogers Elementary School playground Monday afternoon. The Mitchell School District is studying a change in the organization of elementary schools that would organize the schools by grade level rather than by neighborhoods. (Chris Huber/Republic Photo)

Superintendent: Reorganization of elementary schools warrants study

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news Mitchell, 57301
Mitchell South Dakota 120 South Lawler 57301

Mitchell Superintendent Joe Graves said Monday that an idea to reorganize Mitchell's elementary schools as grade-level rather than neighborhood schools might never make it off the drawing board, but it's still worth exploring.

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Graves explains the idea in a column on Page 4 of today's edition and spoke to The Daily Republic about the idea by phone Monday.

Under the grade-level concept, kindergarten and first-grade students might be assigned to one school, second- and third-graders to a second school, and fourth- and fifth-graders to a third elementary school. Currently, Mitchell's three elementary schools each have kindergarten through fifth-grade students, and the students are assigned to a school based on where they reside within the city.

The grade-level concept has been adopted in Brookings and Huron as a means of balancing class sizes and reducing expenses.

Graves said the proposal was generally panned at a recent meeting of the Longfellow Elementary School Parent Teacher Association. He also plans to introduce the concept to the faculties and parent-teacher organizations at L.B. Williams and Gertie Belle Rogers elementary schools.

The plan has not been presented to the Mitchell Board of Education and might never be if it receives no support, he said.

But Graves believes it warrants a look.

"A good organization is always asking how it can be more efficient," he said.

According to Graves, initial projections show the plan could save the district between $50,000 and $160,000 a year, depending on the grade-level arrangement. The savings would come from staff reductions that are common when grade levels are consolidated, Graves said.

Other advantages, he said, include easier planning among grade-level teachers, more even class sizes, automatic desegregation if ethnic populations increase and more efficient use of district buildings.

There are also disadvantages.

"Parents and others like neighborhood schools," Graves said. Also, parents with several children in one elementary school might have to make several transportation runs to multiple grade-level schools. There also may be less participation in parent-teacher organizations.

The plan made sense for the Huron School District.

Superintendent Ross Opsal said his district will reorganize to a grade-level program in the 2011-2012 school year. The program will reduce the district's four elementary schools to three. The neighborhood school concept was no longer working, he said.

Opsal said the district found that 29 to 41 percent of elementary students did not attend their neighborhood schools, opting instead for other schools outside their neighborhood.

"There were a variety of reasons, but because of it we were becoming very disproportionate," he said. Minority students and students qualifying for special programs were gravitating toward certain buildings, he said.

"A grade-level configuration would eliminate that," he said. "We were going to have issues with the Office of Civil Rights if anybody challenged that."

For example, 70 percent of students qualified for freeand-reduced meals at one Huron building and only 30 percent qualified in another building. Such disproportionate numbers are indefensible, Opsal said.

The plan will allow the district to be more financially efficient, he added.

"We can target our professional development, and we don't have to have four separate libraries with redundant books."

There was plenty of resistance to the concept, especially among parents with children of multiple ages.

"You just can't drop off all three kids at a building; you'll have to make two or three stops," he said.

Kindergarten and preschool classes will be at Buchanan Elementary, grades one and two at Madison Elementary, and grades three and four will be at Washington Elementary School. Grades five through eight will be at the middle school, and grades nine through 12 will be at the high school, he said.

Under the new plan, each building will have its own principal instead of shared principals, which is now the case.

"There was huge resistance from parents who didn't want fifth-graders and eighthgraders in the same building," Opsal said.

The Huron district is feeling a financial pinch, he said, but the new plan will allow the district to close an old, two-story school.

At this time, Graves said, Mitchell is not desperate for cash; nor does it have an imbalance in student groups.

But, he added, "it still makes sense to explore the question."

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