Southwest Licking leaders say the school district's plans for "grade banding" and all-day kindergarten in the next school year signal taking a step forward.
The school board voted 5-0 on May 15 to instruct Superintendent Robert Jennell and Treasurer Richard Jones to create a plan for banded classes at the elementary schools and to offer free all-day, everyday kindergarten by the beginning of the 2014-15 school year.
School board President Don Huber said the district had to move forward after its planned $109 million facilities renovation and construction project was derailed by voters' rejections of bond requests in November and May.
"I think we'd be making a huge mistake if we just cried over spilt milk," Huber said.
Huber said the state mandates all-day kindergarten and Southwest Licking had been looking for waivers so it's not forced to implement it.
Meanwhile, grade banding refers to keeping children together from one grade to the next, with most buildings serving no more than two grade levels.
Currently, each of the district's three elementary schools handle all grades with the intention of educating students in the neighborhoods closest to each specific school.
"Grade banding is not as horrible as you think it is," Jennell said. "In fact, it has super benefits."
Jennell explained the current organization of district schools causes classrooms in each building to be filled partially. In other words, he said, some classroom space is not being utilized properly.
Grade banding would fill the classrooms and free up some teachers to teach kindergarten so the district only has to hire a few to accommodate all-day kindergarten classes, Jennell said.
Jennell said elementary students should notice an increased perception of safety because they would be roughly the same age and principals could focus on two grades instead of five.
Jennell said teachers could focus on all levels of instruction for each grade since all students of that grade would be in the same building.
It also would be easier for teachers within the specific grades to exchange ideas, he said.
"This is powerful, powerful stuff," Jennell said.
Jennell said grade banding also would improve the allocation of resources.
"Right now we have three of everything," Jennell said. "You don't need three of everything if you place (the entire class) in one building. We'll give the community what I think is a huge positive thing out of the schools."
Next year, the district's three elementary buildings likely will have the following configuration:
* Kirkersville Elementary School would be used for all kindergarten and first-grade classes and offer all-day kindergarten to all students.
* Pataskala Elementary School would become the second- and third-grade building.
* Etna Elementary School would house all fourth- and fifth-grade students.
Huber said grade banding does have some disadvantages.
"If someone has kids in grades one, three and five, they'll be going to three different buildings," Huber said. "It's not perfect. That's why we didn't adopt it in the past. We looked at it and people do not like change."
However, the failed bond requests changed the circumstances, he said.
"With no prospect of additional permanent space at the elementary level for at least four or five years, what are we going to do that isn't just crying over spilt milk?" Huber said. "I think this would be a significant step forward."
Paula Ball, a teacher who will be co-president of the Southwest Licking Education Association, said she and her colleagues felt as though they were excluded from the decision to grade band the elementary schools and implement all-day kindergarten, even though the union supports the all-day kindergarten decision.
"We came in here blindsided," Ball said. "We just have a lot of questions."
She said those questions include how teachers will know which subjects they will teach and which classrooms will they use.
Ball said some of the elementary teachers have worked in the same building for decades.
"This is going to be a very emotional thing," she said.
Huber said board members share the same concerns. He assured her the board would work with the education association, but action was necessary.
"If we didn't take action tonight, we would've been delayed a whole year," Huber said.