Numerous questions addressed before ACSD Board approves movement of sixth graders, administrative changes

by Brianne Eilers

The Allamakee Community School District (ACSD) Board of Directors met for a special meeting Monday, January 26 to vote on the recommendation to move the sixth grade classes from East Elementary and Waterville Elementary schools to the junior high school building in Waukon and the recommendation to approve the restructuring of the administrative staff within the school district. The move will not affect students enrolled at St. Patrick Elementary.
Prior to opening the meeting to public comment, board member Thomas Baxter addressed those in attendance at the meeting regarding rumors that have been circulating that moving the sixth grade to the junior high school would be a step toward the closing of Waterville Elementary. Baxter assured those in attendance that was not the case. “I will personally tell you that is not a true statement,” Baxter said, adding that there has not been any discussion on closing Waterville Elementary. He further noted that he felt moving the sixth grade students to the junior high would provide more educational opportunities for those students and that there is no “hidden agenda” to close the Waterville school.
Much of the public comment that the Board received involved concerns with how this move would affect Waterville Elementary. It was explained that if the sixth grade was moved from Waterville, the school would be restructured by combining the kindergarten and first grade classes together, the second and third grade classes together, and the fourth and fifth grade classes together.
The administrative staff and teachers that were in attendance, as well as board members, addressed parent concerns with the combination of the kindergarten and first graders being together. Current Waterville Elementary Principal Joe Griffith noted that the subjects of reading and math have been, and will continue to be, taught by the single individual grades, while other subjects like science, social studies and special subjects would be taught together. Griffith also noted that in other schools where grades are combined, the combination of kindergarten and first grades is “more common.”
There was also concern that if Waterville Elementary loses the sixth grade students that the school could also see cuts in funding, which board members assured would not happen. While the district does receive funding from the State on a per student basis, Board President Al Rissman noted that the money “all goes in the same pot.” Rissman further said, "The money will still be there and we’ll make sure there is enough to cover things that all students have a good education.” Board member Patty Nordheim noted that the district has kept up with maintenance and repairs at Waterville Elementary and she felt it was “a good building.”
Nordheim stated that there were two big factors in this decision, both bearing equal weight: the fact that an elementary principal, Ann Hart, is retiring and the fact that the district is seeing a decline in enrollment. Declining enrollment means less money to the district from State funding.
It was further explained that if the sixth graders could be moved in time for the 2015-2016 school year, the district could factor the sixth graders into the purchasing of new student computers for the 1:1 Initiative. Educators and board members feel that sixth grade students are ready for the technology opportunities this move would open up to them. Concerns were raised as to whether or not all the schools have equal technology opportunities. ACSD Superintendent Dave Herold noted that all buildings have wireless internet, and that technology is updated in the buildings on a rotational basis (one building one year, another the next year, and so on).
It was pointed out that not all students at the grade school level may have their own iPads, but each classroom has a computer and the elementary schools have computer labs for students to use. Herold also explained that he, as well as current East and West Elementary Principal Ann Hart, are of the opinion that for grades K-2, the best methods of learning include basal readers and using pencil and paper rather than schools that may provide every elementary student with a device like an iPad.

Another concern has been with space to accommodate the sixth grade students with additional classrooms at the junior high school. The proposed sixth grade classrooms will involve three or four rooms located near the junior high offices. One issue that was raised is that the Alternative  High School class is located near the proposed classrooms and how that might affect the sixth grade students. Principal Griffith explained that the alternative school students do not move from their classrooms at the same time as the other junior high students in that hallway. They also do not eat lunch with the junior high students, nor are they in the hallways unsupervised.
He noted that this is a concern that has been around since the junior high was moved to it present location, but it has not presented problems. “They can be in the same building,” he noted. He further noted that the sixth graders will be in the junior high, and that the high school students are not in that area.
Griffith also noted that he has had experience with students transitioning into the current junior high, which is essentially a 300-foot hallway, as opposed to the old junior high, which had three levels. He noted that in the previous junior high there were students who had a hard time finding their classes and transitioning within those three floors of classrooms, but in the current location, the environment is very controlled and contained, and there is much less anxiety. It was pointed out by a couple of those in attendance that, sometimes, change can be harder for parents and adults to deal with than the students themselves.
Losing some activity time was also brought up, as the students will be losing their recess, but Herold noted that staff members were looking at options to make that time up, including possibly utilizing homeroom time for additional physical activity. With the move, sixth graders would also have opportunities for activities such as yearbook, plays, student council and intramural activities, including intramural sports - which would take place against other teams within the school. Due to regulations set by the Iowa High School Athletic Association (IHSAA) and Iowa High School Girls Athletic Union (IHSGAU), sixth grade students would not be able to compete against other schools in sports at the junior high or high school competitive levels.
Questions were also raised regarding student-to-teacher ratios, which have been estimated to be 25-to-1 or less, depending on the size of the class, and that could vary each year depending on the number of sixth graders enrolled. The question was also raised as to whether or not the class sizes could get so big that they wouldn’t fit in the classrooms designated in the junior high. For the immediate future, that does not appear to be an issue.

After hearing the concerns of the parents, teachers, administrators and public, the Board approved, unanimously, to move the sixth grade students from Waterville and East Elementary schools to the junior high, beginning with the 2015-2016 school year.
The Board also approved restructuring of the administrative staff, as follows, for the 2015-2016 school year: Waukon High School Principal (grades 9-12) will continue to be Dan Diercks; Junior High Principal (grades 6-8) and Junior High Activities Director will be Jennifer Garin; West and East Elementary Principal will be Joe Griffith; and Waterville Elementary (.3) Principal will be Julie Askelson, pending her obtaining an administrative certificate. No decision has been reached on the position of High School Activities Director at this point in time.