UNION, NJ – A proposed school reconfiguration plan, changing the grade levels housed in Union’s elementary and middle schools, was presented to the Board at Thursday night’s Board of Education planning session.
In general, the plan proposes:
- Elementary schools would become grades pre-K through sixth grade
- Jefferson School (currently for all township 5th graders) and Kawameeh Middle School will become elementary schools (pre-K through 6th grade)
- Burnet Middle School would become the township’s only middle school (7th and 8th grades)
- Union High School would remain a 9th – 12th grade school with a freshman academy added
School Superintendent Gregory Tatum said the Philosophy Committee, a sub-committee of the district-wide Planning Committee, consisting of teachers, stakeholders from the community, administrators, members of the PTA, and family members, studied the issue and came up with the proposed plan.
Presenting to the Board, school counselor Jill Hall, a member of the Philosophy Committee, said the current school configuration has been in place, largely unchanged, since 1969, based on a desegregation plan, which became a national model at the time.
Hall said research indicates (school) transitions are very difficult for children and continuity very important. She said when students in the middle grades stay in an elementary setting there are fewer discipline problems. She added that research shows that sixth grade students attending middle schools are more likely to be cited for disciplinary problems than those who continue to attend an elementary school.
“When you put sixth graders back into elementary school, the data will tell us that discipline drops, because the sixth graders are no longer the youngest ones in the building; they become leaders,” said Hall. “And with that leadership role comes responsibility and the opportunity for them to step-up.” Hall said the current configuration does not align with what is known about the developmental stages of children, attachment or social-emotional learning.
“Essentially now, every neighborhood would have a neighborhood school,” said Hall. She said the proposal allows students to come together in 7th grade and stay together from 7th through 12th.” The proposed Freshman Academy is intended to help ease the transition from middle school to high school.
Hall said the plan would allow the district to improve the ability to meet students’ academic, social and emotional needs, create more space and alleviate crowding, meet the needs of students in the 21st century, and increase collaboration with the township committee.
“We probably could house on average 600 students in every [elementary] school,” said Tatum. “Right now, with the current enrollment at the elementary level, we’d be around 525 for every building. We’d be comfortable and [have] room to grow. I projected that, if this configuration were to go forward, looking at the way things are right now and looking at existing programs, we probably could, district-wide, house another 2,000 students.”
The plan presents many challenges, as well, said Hall. Some of the challenges include zoning issues, getting schools up to code for pre-K standards, starting time changes, staffing issues, scheduling. While in the long term the plan promotes attachment and fewer transitions, said Hall, in the first few years, there may be more school transition.
Additional challenges include getting the community to embrace the change, said Hall, writing grants to offset the costs of upgrading facilities, and ensuring proper professional development to support teachers and staff.
Regarding costs, Hall said, another challenge is to determine the overall cost and the initial and long-term outlay of funds for the project. “We can’t even give you a ballpark figure at this point. We can tell you that we explored a lot of ways to bring some money in and have been thinking creatively.”
“The best part of all of this is being able to focus on that middle school transition,” said Hall, “adolescence development, psychosocial development specific to that age group.”
Hall said a preliminary timeline is September 2021. Tatum said, “we need to identify a plan of action that includes how to finance the reconfiguration project and also the demographics of the town and how the reconfiguration would look.” He said a cost analysis is projected to be available in October.