PUBLIC MEETING—The school district presented their proposal to move sixth graders from the elementary school to Nome-Beltz Jr./Sr. High School.

Nome Public Schools District proposes a middle school at Nome-Beltz

Administrators of the Nome Public Schools have proposed moving sixth grade students from the Nome Elementary School to Nome-Beltz Jr./Sr. High School, making the two-year junior high school into a three-year middle school. On Wednesday evening, Nov. 20, a public meeting was held to explain the proposal and members of the public, including students who will be affected by the change, had a chance to ask questions.

“We were all in agreement and we thought there’s a really strong rationale for considering this,” said Nome-Beltz High School Principal Ray Thomas. “If we put our kids in the same space with the same teachers for three years in a row research shows that kids show more growth. You don’t start over every year with the kids.”

Students in this age group are going though times of great change in their lives and they are able to build more stable relationships with supportive adults in a three year program. “It’s a difficult time for what used to be seventh, eighth, and ninth grade, our kids are older younger now,” said Thomas. “It’s now fifth and sixth grade where we start to see the changes in kids.”

One reason to move the sixth graders to a middle school environment is because the teachers are content specific rather than the generalists as in the elementary school. “Science and social studies get melted into what we’re doing in English, language arts, and math,” said Nome Elementary School Principal Elizabeth Korenek-Johnson. “Those are our main focus in elementary school, giving kids a solid foundation, in particular in reading. We want kids to be exposed to science and social studies more and we work hard to integrate that. But in the Beltz setting they have content specific instructors for those areas. So it’s more focused on just that content.” Korenek-Johnson added that having as many as six teachers, rather than just one as in elementary school, gives the young people an opportunity to interact with a larger number of supportive adults.

Cost cutting is not part of the rationale for the school staff supporting the proposal. There would be adjustments in staffing and programs. One teacher would move to the middle school from elementary and the music teacher would become full-time at Nome-Beltz. “We certainly don’t want to lose music for our kids, so that’s not on the table,” said Korenek-Johnson about the music teacher moving. “We would be looking for at least a half-time music position which is currently what we have in our building. We share a music teacher with Beltz.” She said adding a full-time teacher to handle both music and art is a possibility.

The move will involve about 42 students. There is adequate classroom space at the junior high school but schedules will need to be fine tuned for the cafeteria, which will be crowded, and for the buses, which are already crowded.

“We know that it’s a concern to have our younger students mingling with our older students,” said Thomas. “For those of us who attended junior high back in the day some of us were roaming the halls with high school students which felt really cool but we figured out that wasn’t a really good idea.” The layout of the school buildings will minimize contact between older and younger students.

After the presentation by the two principals the meeting opened up to questions from the public. A group of about a dozen seventh and eighth grade students was there and ready to speak up. They asked questions about crowding on buses and in the cafeteria and how those problems would be resolved. The students were assured that the school staff was aware of those problems and working on solutions.

Melissa Ford asked about class sizes and how the change might affect the student teacher ratio. She also praised the young students for coming to the meeting and for asking good questions.  “Looking at the schedules the class sizes would be no bigger than they are now and possibly smaller,” replied Korenek-Johnson. “Some teachers are borrowed from the high school to teach junior high.” She said there are now 22 to 23 in each of the sixth grade classes. “Enrollment at Nome-Beltz this year is 40 kids up from last year.” Korenek-Johnson said the elementary school is steady at around 370 students. “We’re fortunate that our student teacher ratio is well within reason,” said Mr. Thomas.

Thomas showed the same presentation to the staff at Nome-Beltz and encouraged them to find problems. But they didn’t identify any. Korenek-Johnson said there’s always a learning curve when something new comes along and cited the new online enrollment system as an example. “The first year of change will be the most difficult because we’ll be bringing two grades up that don’t know the system at Nome-Beltz at one time.”

“There’s no playground out there,” one parent said of the high school campus. Superintendent Jamie Burgess reminded them that NSEDC had just granted $80,000 for a fitness course to be built. That got a round of applause. The sixth graders will also be closer to the swimming pool, which is part of the high school complex.  

“Will every sixth grader get their own locker?” asked a male student. Mr. Thomas assured him that they would. Wookie Nichols asked whether the SPED students would be getting all the help they need. “A lot of the sixth graders will be uncomfortable because they’ll be walking the halls with high schoolers whom they’ve never even talked to,” said eighth grader Sarah Bahnke. “The buses are super crowded, especially the blue bus,” said Audrey Bahnke, Sarah’s twin sister.

“As a teacher at ACSA I see a lot of value in having the same group for three years,” said Anvil City Science Academy principal and teacher Lisa Leeper. She also has kids in the schools. “You get to know the students and don’t waste time trying to get to know them after the first year. You make a lot more academic and social growth when you’ve already established that rapport with those kids. So I feel like it’s a really great idea to do this. It’s going to be one more year of increased potential for students in their middle school program.” 

A parent asked when the decision to move would be made and would there be another comment opportunity for the public. “The decision will have to be made by the board, because it affects the structure of our school,” said Jamie Burgess. “I would think this wouldn’t happen until January at the very earliest. Any time there’s an action item to consider there’s a public comment period at every single board meeting. Any member of the public is welcome at that point in time to share their thoughts with the board before they make that decision.”

“We’re trying to do this in a thoughtful manner and have enough time for the community to prepare because it will need a little work in every single department,” said Burgess. “But we want to make sure we have enough time to prepare for it and do it right so it’s as smooth as possible.”

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