Blue Earth Area faces decision

BLUE EARTH – Blue Earth Area School Board on Monday will confront a recommendation from the district’s principals on whether eighth-graders should be moved to the high school this fall.

Research has been going on for months. There also have been public meetings, particularly with parents of eighth-graders, to offer information and answer questions.

During the latest meeting, high school Principal Rich Schneider recapped the preparation that has gone into the possible move. This has included visits to Albert Lea and Red Wing, two districts that moved their eighth-graders to high school buildings.

Schneider said one reason Blue Earth Area is considering the move is to familiarize students with the high school schedule and building before their classwork counts toward graduation. The theory is that if students are adjusting to too many things at once, it can hurt their grades. Albert Lea and Red Wing spread out the distractions, getting kids used to the building and schedule so they could concentrate on schoolwork when it counted.

“The eighth-grade experience prepared them to be a successful ninth-grader,” said Blue Earth Area business teacher Gary Holmseth.

“The number of failures was a significant drop,” added Craig Van Kley, a math teacher and guidance counselor.

Blue Earth Area has enough lockers and empty classrooms at the high school to accommodate the move, Schneider said. The one exception is that there are only three science rooms, so a classroom would have to be converted or the ag room would have to be used.

Blue Earth Area High School has a 600-student capacity. Even with the eighth-graders at the high school, projected enrollment for 2014-15 is 467.

Schneider plans for the eighth- and ninth-graders to have lunch together, but said there has been a hiccup because the eighth-graders are required to receive different portion sizes. The eighth- and ninth-graders will have to be served through separate lines, he said.

The eighth-graders would be interspersed with the freshmen and sophomores, but not the juniors and seniors, Schneider said. Currently, sophomores, juniors and seniors are together for band and choir, with the freshmen separate.

“We’ll have ninth-graders go with the eighth-graders for band,” Schneider said..

Questions have been raised about whether eighth-graders are mature enough to handle life at the high school.

“We’re always going to have some students who struggle socially,” Schneider said.

He plans to have orientation workshops for eighth- and ninth-graders to introduce them to the high school prior to the beginning of school.

Schneider explained how the eighth-graders’ schedule would be set up, with core subjects such as math, reading and physical education, and how the students would fit in electives.

Reconfiguring the eighth-graders’ schedule leaves no room in the day for ag or art, Schneider noted. That does not sit well with some parents.

“Our curriculum is looking different,” said Alicia Barke, adding that ag and art give students thinking skills they need. “It’s really a disservice to the kids.”

One option is to offer an art club, Schneider said.

Barke asked about “skinnies,” which are a half-block class, and whether the students could split art or ag with physical ed. She said some students might lose interest in school if all they can take is required classes.

“Is art the one thing that gets them out of bed in the morning?” Barke asked.

“This was supposed to offer more options, and it’s restricting them,” said Shane Becker. “Is the four-period day the best?”

“We’re an agricultural community,” Laura Becker pointed out. “Kids need to have a sampling of it.”

She asked if teachers could teach in a way to incorporate vo-tech skills into core classes, so students get the practical skills they will need.

Teachers have introduced real-world things into core classes, said science teacher Brian Kokos: “It’s the whole picture; I’m for the entire education of the kids.”

“The first year is our trial run,” Schneider said. “There’s a lot of things to consider.”

“Would we be better off postponing it a year?” asked Barke, adding that she is concerned that if the district drops classes they will not get them back.

“If we’re going to make this move, don’t we want to make it better?” Barke asked. “If we’re cutting curriculum, is it better for the kids?”

The top priority is the students, said Schneider, reminding the audience that the district must consider the needs of every student, no matter their skill or intelligence level. And the school must be fiscally responsible, he noted.

“My success will be less students failing classes and having to repeat classes,” he said.