Projects could shift grades
Facility projects could move ninth grade to high school and sixth grade to middle school
TOWAMENCIN >> As the North Penn School District continues talks on renovations and possible upgrades to elementary schools and North Penn High School, those talks could lead to a broader conversation.
Superintendent Curt Dietrich suggested this week that the school board and public start to discuss whether building projects could be used to examine changes to grade levels at certain schools.
“Should we be looking at, do we want to continue to have the same grade configuration we currently have?” Dietrich said.
“Depending on how you answer that question, it could change your course of action with replacing the modulars, building a permanent addition, or simply removing and not replacing any of them,” he said.
North Penn High School currently contains students in grades 10 through 12, while the district’s three middle schools currently teach students in grades seven through nine, and the 13 elementary schools teach kindergarten through sixth grade. During a series of meetings on district facilities needs last fall, teachers in multiple middle schools raised concerns about mold and other health hazards in modular classrooms, which have been added to the schools to increase their capacity.
“What’s the plan for the modulars? Some of those modulars have been there a long time, and really are beyond their expected lifespan. They’re still functional, but we need a plan,” Dietrich said.
Board members sounded off during the Jan. 8 meeting about conditions at North Penn High School and aging utilities there in need of repairs or upgrades, along with a possible renovation to Knapp Elementary School. Dietrich asked if talks on a major upgrade project to the high school could, or should, include adding space somewhere to move ninth grade from the three middle schools to the high school.
Assistant Superintendent Todd Bauer, who had been principal at the high school from 2015-18, said the district currently has roughly 130 ninth-graders who come to the high school for various reasons.
“Whether it’s for reading intervention, in order to attend our tech school, in some cases it’s for some form of course advancement — opportunities they can’t get at the middle school,” Bauer said.
Middle school students also take part in high school JROTC training, language instruction, and are often bused from a middle school to the high school, and/or the adjacent North Montco Technical Career Center, then back to their middle school.
“The schedule is driven, a lot, by those ninth graders. Some of the opportunities for the 10th through 12th graders are affected — I won’t say limited, but affected — by the need to program for the ninth graders coming up here,” Bauer said.
Dietrich said he’s had recent conversations with Pete Nicholson, the high school’s current principal, about how the high school’s engineering academy courses are currently limited to grades 10-12, and having ninth grade on the high school campus could expand it.
“We expect for them to complete the entire course of study in engineering, to do it in three years, in five courses, and there are ninth graders who would love to get started on that engineering academy, but it just simply doesn’t work because they’re not here on the campus,” Dietrich said.
Some sports teams do field separate ninth grade teams, but others have ninth graders on high school varsity or junior varsity teams, and drama and music programs have encountered similar problems, he said.
“Clearly, we’re attempt’s to meet the needs of ninth graders, but to be fair, if you look at what the possibilities may be, I think we have to have that conversation about ninth grade,” he said.
“Is it still appropriate to keep ninth grade in our middle schools? And if we were not to have ninth grade in the middle schools, what would it look like?” Dietrich said.
Moving ninth grade to the high school campus could mean construction of some sort of new classroom space on the high school campus, attached or unattached to the rest of the building. Staff and the board would have to evaluate all angels of any possible change, the superintendent said, including if ninth graders would share space in the current high school gym, which is often overbooked, or add a new one, and what the impact on traffic around the campus would be.
“It’s really premature to say what that might be, but we can have the architect take a look at that, and give us some possibilities,” he said.
Moving ninth grade to the high school site would then open up another discussion, Dietrich said: should sixth grade then be moved from elementary to middle schools? If that’s done, what impact would that have on class sizes, and the need for the current 20-plus modular classrooms at Pennbrook and Pennfield Middle Schools?
“We could simply remove all of the modulars (at middle schools) and stay seven and eight, or we could move sixth grade to the middle schools. I think we have to have that discussion,” Dietrich said.
Five elementary schools also have modular classrooms currently, so would moving sixth grade to the middle schools reduce the need for classroom space at the elementary level?
“By and large, we would say the modulars are not really a permanent solution, they’re more of a temporary solution, but they have become a bit permanent here at North Penn,” Dietrich said.
“They are simply not energy efficient. There’s no doubt about that,” he said, and tend to lose heat quickly due to their modular construction.
Several school board members said they were looking forward to continuing the conversation, incidence board President Tina Stoll, who said she thought staff and the board could find a creative solution to multiple problems at once.
“I think this could possibly solve, not all of our infrastructure problems, but a lot of them in one fell swoop,” Stoll said.
“By having the ninth graders come up to this campus, and get rid of the modulars, that’s just huge,” she said.
Board member Elisha Gee said she thought moving ninth grade to the high school could create synergies in the science and engineering courses, along with guidance counseling, and said similar changes could benefit sixth grade by consolidating it at the middle schools.
“I think it’s certainly worth exploring, for a number of benefits for ninth grade, as well as all the way down to elementary school,” she said.
Board member Jenna Ott said she has heard students say they’re excited about the possibilities of moving ninth grade, and member Juliane Ramic said she hopes any such discussion is student-centered and focuses on how best to meet student needs at all levels.
Gee suggested monitoring the Abington School District as they undertake a similar grade shift. Dietrich said staff are far from making any formal recommendations, but wanted direction from the board on whether to focus on or rule out any options.
“It’s not an easy puzzle, but in my estimation, it can be solved, one way or another. We’ll have to figure that out,” Dietrich said.
The North Penn School Board next meets at 7:30 p.m. on Jan. 17 at the district Educational Services Center, 401 E. Hancock St. For more information nor meeting agendas and materials visit www.NPenn. org.
“Clearly, we’re attempt’s to meet the needs of ninth graders, but to be fair, if you look at what the possibilities may be, I think we have to have that conversation about ninth grade,” he said. Is it still appropriate to keep ninth grade in our middle schools? And if we were not to have ninth grade in the middle schools, what would it look like?” — Superintendent Curt Dietrich