At Concord forums, discussion continues on bringing fifth grade to new Rundlett Middle School

  • Rundlett Middle School principal Paulette Fitzgerald speaks at a community forum about middle school grade configuration, held at Abbot-Downing School on Nov. 9, 2021. Eileen O'Grady—Monitor staff

  • Matt Cashman, director of facilities and planning for the Concord School District, answers questions at a community forum about middle school grade configuration, held at Abbot-Downing School on Nov. 9, 2021. Eileen O'Grady—Monitor staff

  • Rundlett Middle School principal Paulette Fitzgerald, HMFH architect Laura Wernick and district facilities and planning director Matt Cashman listen to questions at a community forum about middle school grade configuration, held at Abbot-Downing School on Nov. 9, 2021. Eileen O'Grady—Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 11/11/2021 5:16:54 PM

The focus is on fifth grade in Concord this week, as school administrators, parents and teachers discuss grade configuration and whether a Rundlett Middle School that includes grades five through eight would be a beneficial opportunity or an overwhelming experience for Concord’s 10-year-olds.

Concord School District officials hosted two public forums on Monday and Tuesday this week to gather public opinion on grade configuration for the future middle school building. Before a building design can be chosen, the district must decide whether to continue with the current configuration of grades six to eight or expand it to include fifth grade as well. With the project’s current timeline, the decision that is made now would impact students who will be fifth graders in 2025, at the earliest.

“The real goal here tonight is to hear the voices of the public and hear what they have to say about what the configuration of the school should be,” Superintendent Kathleen Murphy said at Tuesday’s forum. “We will have big decisions to make, the board will make those decisions in the next few months in terms of what the building will look like, obviously your feedback will be important, where the building will be, that has not been determined, as well as the partnership that we could have with the Y.”

At each forum, Rundlett Middle School principal Paulette Fitzgerald shared some of the advantages and disadvantages of moving fifth grade to the middle school. Among the advantages, the students would be exposed to extracurricular opportunities earlier, the students would remain in middle school for longer, and the fifth graders could be near their sixth grade peers, who are more developmentally similar to them than fourth graders.

“We know that students between the ages of 10 and 15 are going through rapid changes, physically, socially, cognitively and so it’s really important that a middle school program be developmentally responsive, which means our teachers understand adolescents, everyone in the building understands adolescents,” Fitzgerald said.

Among the disadvantages Fitzgerald listed was that students would have to leave the comfort and community of their neighborhood elementary schools sooner and that the addition of fifth graders to Rundlett could make for a large school population, around 1,200 students, according to estimates.

Several parents in attendance Tuesday said that although they were initially hesitant about bringing fifth graders to the middle school, they like the proposed 5-8 building plan designed by HMFH Architects Inc., that would keep the younger students physically separated from the older ones during the school day.

The HMFH 5-8 middle school design involves two separate academic wings – one for fifth and sixth grade and another for seventh and eighth grade – that each has its own entrance, classrooms, art room, administrative office area and cafeteria. The rest of the school would be a shared space with a common gym, auditorium, technology, facilities and food service departments.

“In that way, a student going into fifth grade does not feel like they are going into a large school, they are going into their part of a school,” said HMFH architect Laura Wernick. “And most of the day they will be in their school, their area of the building.”

Within the fifth and sixth grade wing, the fifth graders would have a “neighborhood” of classrooms grouped separately from the sixth grade classrooms and would not need to be on the sixth graders’ schedule, which involves more class changes throughout the day. Several parents at the forum said this separate layout would ease their concerns about fifth graders mixing with their developmentally older eighth grade peers.

When it comes to extracurriculars, Murphy said athletics would probably include A teams and B teams to allow students of different ages to access sports.

Rundlett Middle School eighth grade ELA teacher Linda O’Rourke said at Tuesday’s forum that she supports 5-8 grade configuration because it would give students four years in the same building, allowing them to be in the community longer and form relationships in between when they finish adjusting to middle school and begin preparing for high school.

“I kind of like the idea of having a larger school because the word that sticks with me is ‘layover,’ ” O’Rourke said. “Rundlett is often seen as ‘when I get to high school,’ not ‘I’m at Rundlett.’ And so I do feel there may be more of a sense of community and ownership if we have a larger group of students at our school.”

But others worry that bringing fifth graders to middle school would force them to grow up too soon.

Susan Lauze, principal at Broken Ground School, said on Tuesday that her fifth graders need the extra time in elementary school which includes a special focus on improving their reading, writing and math skills.

“For me, 10-year-olds are in the twilight sunset of their childhood,” Lauze said. “And why are we going to push that, to have them be with a large number of adolescents? I don’t see the need to push, at this point time, for that.”

Some parents at the forums expressed concern about the large population size of a five to eight school, something Murphy admitted is also a concern for her. As the School Board continues to plan the new middle school, they will discuss the possibility of having two middle school buildings.

“I think 900 students at the middle school level is too much, I absolutely agree with you,” Murphy said. “I do worry about that because I think our focus is on kids. It really is about providing and creating an environment where kids are successful, where people know them, so that they don’t slip through the cracks. We have to be prepared to meet the needs of a lot of students.”

The Concord School District is hosting another public forum via Zoom on Tuesday at 5:30 p.m. where community members can share their thoughts on grade configuration virtually. Meeting details are available on the district website.

Eileen O

Eileen O'Grady is a Report for America corps member covering education for the Concord Monitor since spring 2020. O’Grady is the former managing editor of Scope magazine at Northeastern University in Boston, where she reported on social justice issues, community activism, local politics and the COVID-19 pandemic. She is a native Vermonter and worked as a reporter covering local politics for the Shelburne News and the Citizen. Her work has also appeared in The Boston Globe, U.S. News & World Report, The Bay State Banner, and VTDigger. She has a master’s degree in journalism from Northeastern University and a bachelor’s degree in politics and French from Mount Holyoke College, where she served as news editor for the Mount Holyoke News from 2017-2018.

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