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Fresno Unified to create four-grade middle schools

Fresno Unified School District plans to spend millions of dollars converting four schools into fifth- through eighth-grade middle-school campuses over the next 15 years.

While experts disagree over how student achievement is affected by expanding middle schools, the benefit for Fresno Unified is clear: The move will help the district compete with charter schools by offering families more options, officials say.

Under the change, spelled out in the district master plan adopted in April, Sequoia and Ahwahnee middle schools and Anthony and Greenberg elementary schools will become four-year middle schools.

About a dozen Fresno Unified middle schools won't be affected. This includes most two-year middle schools, as well as Wawona Middle School, which has sixth- through eighth-graders, and Baird Middle School, with students in grades five through eight. Details, including timing of the moves, have yet to be spelled out.

One goal for the district is to help balance enrollments. Some existing middle schools have room for more students, while some elementary schools are crowded. But the main goal of reconfiguration is to provide parents and students more options, district officials say. This will help Fresno Unified keep students -- and state attendance money -- from moving to a growing number of charter schools.

Some of the expanded middle schools will offer magnet-type programs. And parents will be able to decide whether a two- or four-year middle school works best for their child, said Nancy Akhavan, Fresno Unified's assistant superintendent for middle schools.

"The biggest thing we are trying to do is provide choice to families," Akhavan said.

Middle schools in many Valley cities, including Clovis and Madera, have traditionally served grades seven and eight -- a short transitional period between elementary and high school. Since the late 1970s, most Fresno middle schools have done the same.

That's not the way most middle schools operate today. In California, only about 18% of middle schools are limited to those two grades, said Mary Perry, deputy director of EdSource, a Mountain View-based think tank that focuses on California schools.

Some studies suggest that keeping students at least three years on one campus gives them program continuity and helps them bond with the school staff, providing a better learning experience.

But research on the question is mixed. EdSource recently completed a study on middle schools and academic performance and didn't find a consistent relationship between grade configuration and student outcomes, Perry said.

"The whole question of how to place middle-grade students is one that has been debated for more than 20 years," Perry said. While continuity is important, "People worry about putting younger children with adolescents."

Parent Kim Cooper, who has children in grades one, five and eight in Fresno Unified schools, doesn't like the idea.

"I don't think it would be appropriate to put 10-year-olds with 13- or 14-year-olds," Cooper said. "I think eighth-graders are too mature for fifth-graders and a lot of things can happen. I'm thinking about my daughter being with eighth-grade boys."

The conversion to four-year middle schools is part of Fresno Unified's facilities master plan -- the district's long-range vision to balance enrollment and adjust school boundaries over the next 15 years. The $940 million plan calls for several new schools to be built in the southeast and southwest areas of the district and for some school boundaries to be realigned.

And the changes won't come cheap. Converting Greenberg and Anthony elementary schools into four-year middle schools could cost about $24 million, the district said.

The money would be spent adding facilities needed for older students, including gymnasiums, locker rooms and classrooms -- such as science labs -- not typically found on elementary-school campuses.

Some of the district's newly configured middle schools will offer specialty programs -- as magnet schools do -- although the exact programs haven't been decided.

There is no firm timeline on when the middle school changes will take place. The long-planned southwest Fresno middle school -- which helps launch the district's master plan -- will be the "trigger" for the rest of the middle school changes, said Lisa LeBlanc, Fresno Unified's executive director of facilities planning and management.

The new fifth- through eighth-grade schools will feed into a planned high school in south Fresno as well as three other local high schools. District officials said most high schools will get students from a traditional middle school and an expanded middle school.

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