UNION, NJ – Planning continues on the proposed reconfiguration of grade levels within Union schools, said school Superintendent Gregory Tatum. The new reconfiguration plan, presented to the Board of Education at an August meeting, recommends the following:
- Elementary schools to 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
Tatum said the Philosophy Committee, a sub-committee of the district-wide Planning Committee, continues to look at the impact the proposal makes on the school district as a whole. “This plan is research based,” said Tatum. “It’s based on sound research about the social/emotional health of students as they make transitions in school.” Tatum said research indicates sixth grade students have a more difficult time transitioning, leading to higher rates of academic failure and disaffected students, and an increase in high school dropout rates. “The research is clear,” said Tatum, “consistency and school attachment are important to the sixth grade population.” Tatum added 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.
“The data is eye-opening,” said Jill Hall, committee member and Student Assistance Counselor. “The developmental stage of 10-, 11-, and 12-year olds is critical. We should be addressing the issue of decreased academic performance and increased disciplinary issues. The disruption of moving sixth graders to a middle school is not suitable to development.”
“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 at the August Board meeting. “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.
Tatum said the committee is working to implement the plan for the 2021/2022 school year. He said the committee is examining costs and financing, including researching what resources may be available for funding. Tatum said they will be looking at community, state and legislative support, possible grant funding or even financial support from foundations. “We are trying to be creative,” said Hall. “We want the support of taxpayers.” Tatum added a capacity study indicates there’s room in the schools for any needed expansion. On the upside, said Tatum, the proposed plan will save the district money on busing costs.
“We want to do what’s right for the unique needs of this district,” said Tatum. “We are not going to just do this and see what happens. We are carefully planning this based on data and research, input from our staff, parents, the township, and the community. We want this to be something to unify the township.” Tatum said they will continue to spend the time necessary to ensure it’s a quality change. “We’re not just moving people around,” he added.
Tatum said one of the goals of the reconfiguration is to create an academy-like, state-of-the art middle school (Burnet). Hall added the committee is looking at middle school enhancements, including more STEM classes and increased preparation for the move to high school.
Essentially, the plan proposes every neighborhood have a neighborhood elementary school. 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.
“We want to ensure that the quality of education is the same in all schools,” added Tatum. “The whole idea is that each school is staffed with the best teachers, the most appropriate principals.”
Tatum said the committee plans to survey parents, teachers, and the community for feedback on the proposal. “There’s nothing written in stone yet,” he said. Hall added that prior to the survey, information sessions will be held at each school to explain the plan to parents and the community. The committee plans to hold the information sessions in the Spring.
Union Board of Education President Nancy Minneci said the plan is a great idea. “We need to move with the times. Our kids and parents deserve it,” she said. “We know change is hard, but the research is leading us to take the proper steps to ensure the success of our students.”
“This seems to be the most proactive perspective,” said committee member and Union High School counselor Patricia Bridges. “The district saw the need, looked at the depth of research and is putting in place the steps to make the necessary changes.”
“Sixth grade students will become leaders in their elementary school and middle school students will only be a year or two apart in age,” said teacher and committee member Mary Ellen Patricco. “The fewer transitions students make during their school years the better.”