PORTSMOUTH — About six years ago, the school district made many parents unhappy when it decided to move the fourth grade out of the elementary schools and into Portsmouth Middle School.
Well, now the district is exploring the possibility of changing things back to the way they were.
The idea has been floated around for months but was aired publicly for the first time at Tuesday’s School Committee meeting. It grew out of the School Committee’s review last spring of PARCC (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers) and STAR (Standardized Testing and Reporting) student test data.
From a curriculum standpoint, Superintendent Ana C. Riley told the committee, it makes more sense to keep the third and fourth grades together.
“This was a conversation that came up — could we move fourth grade down?” Ms. Riley said. “Was there room? Was that feasible? We spent some time looking at that possibility, talking to the principals, just figuring out logistically if it could happen.”
Administrators visited the schools to make sure they could move the fourth-grade classes into adequate space at both Hathaway and Melville elementary schools.
“We feel like now we’re in a position to say we have enough physical space, but that’s not the end of the conversation; we want the principals to continue that conversation,” Ms. Riley said. “Now we’ll be scheduling a budget meeting to review costs, needs and challenges, so that by the time we come forward with the budget, we’ll have all that necessary information.”
Parents who have already heard about the plan “are very much in favor” of it, Ms. Riley said.
“The word is out there informally,” she said. “We had a Hathaway parent say, ‘If you can keep them there until 12th grade, that would be great.’”
Even though she believes “98 percent” of parents will support the idea, a district-wide survey is still planned to gather more feedback. “That gives us at least another month to put that together (for a budget review),” she said.
‘Just makes sense’
After the meeting, Ms. Riley said there are about 159 fourth-grade students at the middle school now.
“Hathaway right now has four of every grade and Melville has three of every grade, so we would add four fourth grades and three fourth grades, respectively, to each school,” she said.
A change would mean simply keeping the current third-grade students where they are as they transition into the fourth grade, she said. “So it would be really moving the teachers and the stuff from the middle school on down.”
From an academic standpoint, keeping the third and fourth grades together makes more sense, the superintendent said, due to the natural learning transitions that occur from pre-K to K, grades 1 to 2 and grades 3 to 4.
“But those teachers haven’t been in the same place for quite a few years to have those conversations,” she said. “As much as we try to get them together, it’s not as easy as when you’re in the same building; you can’t have those regular, ongoing conversations. So, we feel it would be better for students and overall for student achievement to have (grades) 3 and 4 in the same building.”
Now that it’s been determined there’s adequate room at the elementary schools — “We didn’t want to have to get a trailer or use smaller-sized rooms than the regular classrooms,” Ms. Riley explained — the next step is to dig deeper into the budget and meet with the principals.
“If we move fourth grade down, what are the effects on both schools in terms of what they need for support, staffing?” said Ms. Riley, who will report any anticipated costs and other impacts to the School Committee, which will make the ultimate decision.
If approved in the budget, the fourth-grade classrooms may be back at Hathaway and Melville by September, she said.
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