Projects could shift grades

Fa­cil­ity projects could move ninth grade to high school and sixth grade to mid­dle school

The Reporter (Lansdale, PA) - - FRONT PAGE - By Dan Sokil [email protected]­tu­ry­ @Dan­sokil on Twit­ter

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

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