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K-8 model wins credit for helping Pittsburgh students improve

| Monday, Aug. 23, 2010

Middle school students in Pittsburgh's K-8 classes are improving faster in math and reading than their peers in traditional sixth- to eighth-grade middle schools.

Over the past three years, a higher percentage of sixth- to eighth-grade students at K-8 schools met or exceeded state standards in reading and math on the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment test, according to preliminary data Pittsburgh Public Schools released last week.

The percentage of middle school students who met or exceeded standards declined by 0.1 percentage point during that period. In K-8, the percentage of students scoring proficient and advanced has jumped about 10 percentage points since 2007-08.

City schools Superintendent Mark Roosevelt wouldn't go so far as to say the PSSA results validated the district's decision in 2006 to establish K-8 schools, but he said moving to K-8 was "the district's single best act in the past five years."

"It's really more about the middle schools that we said good-bye to," he said. "I don't think per se that a comprehensive middle school in an urban setting can't succeed, but evidence is accumulating nationally that it's hard."

The city closed its six largest comprehensive middle schools and converted 10 elementary schools to K-8 buildings. Parents were wary of the change because younger children would be in the same building as teens.

Bob Furman, an assistant education professor at Duquesne University, said keeping students in the same school for a longer period could help boost student achievement. He cited "more and better" communication among staff members who spend nine years with the same students. A K-8 school can lead to better alignment of curriculum across all grade levels, said Furman, who studied the issue during the middle school movement of the 1960s.

"At a lot of middle schools across the country, there is an issue surrounding accommodating the kids in the new building that can impact achievement for a while," he said.

Seven of the city's 10 K-8 schools showed the greatest improvement since 2007-08 in the percentage of students meeting or exceeding state standards in reading and math, according to this year's city schools assessment test data.

Schaeffer, Montessori and Faison sixth- to eighth-graders showed the most gains in reading, while Westwood middle schoolers had the greatest improvement in math.

School districts in Cincinnati, Cleveland, Baltimore and New York City have opened K-8 schools. The Philadelphia School District established its first K-8 schools in the late '90s.

A 2006 study of the Philadelphia middle schools, done by researchers at Johns Hopkins University, found that students in established K-8 schools had significantly higher academic achievement than students attending traditional middle schools. Students at newly formed K-8 schools outperformed middle schools students, but by not as much.

Factors contributing to gains in achievement included smaller grade sizes, fewer school transitions and different teacher characteristics, including experience and retention.

Roosevelt said even though K-8 model is working well, it still makes sense to covert Faison and Lincoln, both K-8, back to K-5 schools. The move is part of a reconfiguration of East End schools that would send sixth- to eighth- graders at Faison and Lincoln to Westinghouse High School, which would become a sixth through 12th-grade school, and to Milliones, a sixth- through 12th-grade school that houses the district's university preparatory magnet program. The school board is to vote Wednesday on the East End realignment.

"The basis is one (school) transition and knowing kids better," Roosevelt said. "In a six-to-12 you know them better in a different way, compared to a K-8 in which you know them in their youth."

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