Monday, June 24, 2024

A plan to create a middle school has been shelved temporarily, superintendent Jeffrey Young said, a decision he came to while holding conversations around the district to hone his proposal.

“As I went through the process and listened to so many groups and individuals, it was made clear the issue was more layered, and not paying attention would likely yield a solution that would be problematic,” he said Wednesday.

Although the decision was “emerging” over time, a crystallizing moment for him was hearing Josiah Bonsey and Ariane Berelowitch, high schoolers and the committee’s student representatives, compare experiences attending the same school from kindergarten through eighth grade. One liked it, and the other found it stifling.

“When I heard that, it really sunk in with me — there are things that really work and things that really don’t work, and it’s a matter of finding the right balance,” Young said. “It convinced me to step back and make sure we preserved and extended what’s really good and fixed what needs to be fixed.”

The middle-school process began last year, with Young’s request for community input on the best way to teach the district’s 1,000-plus students in the sixth, seventh and eighth grades. He presented the idea of a middle school for about 450 students Feb. 2 to the School Committee along with a schedule that would lead to a committee vote on the topic: research and take questions through March 23, make a final presentation April 6 and allow public comment through a May 18 decision.

But the committee asked him Feb. 23 to come up with a second plan to present in April, one that didn’t include a middle school.

While working on those parallel plans, Young said, he realized it made more sense to first address districtwide issues.

“The middle school is not off the table in any way. I still believe there’s a tremendous power in that model for this district,” he said. “I don’t believe it’s a fully evolved model.”

The move came as a relief to some in the community and on the committee — member Alice Turkel, for instance, who described herself as “a K-8 gal” and crafted the motion to ask Young for a plan that didn’t include a middle school.

For Marc McGovern, vice chairman of the committee, Young’s decision spoke to his strengths as a leader.

“It’s a smart move. Some folks might feel disappointed we’re not going to have a resolution to the middle school structure on the 6th, but you don’t stick with a plan simply because that’s the plan,” McGovern said. “It’s totally appropriate and smart and shows good leadership to say, ‘We’ve done some good work, but to do it right we have to move in a new direction’ — for him not to get caught up in his plan, his ego, is a good thing. I support him in it and I appreciate him having the flexibility.”

Instead, the administration and committee will look at broader issues underlying the district’s achievement gap, including such topics as financing, allocating space and the “controlled choice” system that allows parents to select schools for their children. Instead of installing a middle school for fall of 2012, the district will study and put in place some corrections in time for fall of 2011.

Many were discussed at a committee retreat Tuesday, where members debated a range of issues, including the right response for constituents asking solutions to specific problems against a backdrop of the superintendent’s work on the system as a whole. One example was whether to visit as a committee to examine the placement of an education-disorders class at the Peabody School. On Wednesday the committee was scheduled to visit the Haggerty School, which seeks the return of a second teacher for students in the sixth grade. Class sizes there have dipped to the point where district rules allow for only one, McGovern said.

Young explained his decision on the district Web site in a letter dated Friday.