Upshur County Superintendent of Schools Dr. Sara Lewis Stankus asks Upshur County Board of Education members to amend the Comprehensive Educational Facilities Plan by making the number one priority the ailing Buckhannon-Upshur Middle School. This amendment would allow the school system to apply for funding through the West Virginia School Building Authority. / Photo by Beth Christian Broschart

Upshur BOE votes to prioritize county middle school in updated educational facilities plan

TENNERTON – Upshur County Board of Education members decided to amend the Comprehensive Educational Facilities Plan for 2020-2030 by voting unanimously to make the county middle school the number one priority.

Upshur County Superintendent of Schools Dr. Sara Lewis Stankus told BOE members in order to bring any proposals to the West Virginia School Building Authority for potential funding, the proposed project must be a part of the county’s CEFP. County schools across West Virginia must update their CEFPs every 10 years.

“Prior to our bond not passing, we had our high school/middle school listed as our number one priority,” Stankus explained. “Now, we would like to change the CEFP and have our middle school listed as our number one priority. That is something our community agrees upon, and we would like to amend our CEFP to reflect that.”

Stankus said there are some upcoming decisions associated with the change, including whether the middle school will serve grades 5-8 or grades 6-8.

“We will have to name that in this plan,” Stankus said. “One of the things that I have asked our team to do – because the curriculum is what has to drive this plan – I have asked our curriculum team to offer a short presentation of what a 5-8 versus a 6-8 configuration differs in the offerings for a middle school.”

Curriculum Director Jody Johnson said the information she would be presenting was gathered from Policy 2510, which assures the quality of education and regulations for programs in West Virginia and Policy 2520.19, the West Virginia college and career readiness dispositions and standards for student success for grades K-12.

“Fifth grade focuses on a holistic approach with content integration … and the individualized instruction which focuses on discovery, small groups, independent learning, exploration and problem solving,” Johnson said. “Also, active movement focuses on developing strong self-regulation skills and providing opportunities for students to learn those dispositions. They speak of students being able to use their words to express their feelings and increase their understanding of the world around them.”

Upshur County Schools curriculum director Melinda Stewart said once students move into sixth grade, the requirements become much more content-specific.

“The focus on career exploration comes to the forefront,” Stewart said. “[It encompasses] the implementation of an advisory period, where we provide students with information on careers, social skills and life skills. This is when their personalized education plan is developed, and it follows the student and is reevaluated and changes all the way through their high school years. That helps them to determine what path they want to take following high school and what their interests are and what career clusters they are looking at.”

Stewart said among the items to consider are teaching certification requirements, differing requirements regarding specific classes, teacher-to-student class ratios and the nationwide discussion about making pre-K required.

“Many years ago, kindergarten was not required, and then it went to half days and now kindergarten is mandatory,” Stewart said. “So, when we consider that we may be looking in the future of requirements to have those spaces in our schools for prekindergarten classrooms. That would be something to look at as we look at these grade-level decisions.”

Facilities Director Tim Derico shared that in West Virginia, 17 counties have the grades 5-8 configuration for their middle schools while 31 counties have a 6-8 configuration. He said some outliers have a pre-K through grade 8 configuration.

“The majority of the state is operating on a 5-8 or 6-8 configuration,” Derico said, adding there is no “right way” to group grade levels.

BOE vice-president Katie Loudin said in her time on the Upshur County BOE, she has the impression that students do very well in the elementary schools because of their sizes.

“We always talk about the middle school as it being quite a jump from being a fifth-grader in small elementary schools to being in that huge middle school,” Loudin said. “It has always been told to me we have the largest or second largest middle school in the whole state … so, I worry about making it even bigger for little fifth graders. Their bodies are going through enormous changes, and their behavior is going through huge changes.”

Derico said at that fifth-grade level, there are approximately 300 students per grade level. He noted that the design of a middle school would weigh heavily on that.

“I think it is premature to make those kinds of predictions, but I think you would have to take those precautions in advance in your design phases so you could help that group of students transition,” Derico said.

“I would agree with Mr. Derico,” BOE member Kristi Wilkerson said. “Something different from that where it could be attended to properly would have my support.”

BOE member Pat Long said he worries about what the fifth-graders would miss by not being top dogs in the elementary schools.

“I think there is an important educational level and social experience they get by being fifth-graders in the elementary schools,” Long said. “A lot of the teachers will use fifth-graders to work with younger students and if they are put into middle school, they are taken out of that element and all of a sudden, they are the low dog on the totem pole again. Research will show you those years are very important and to throw them into any configuration does not let them grow. You may learn what the curriculum says you are to learn, but there is a lot more to learn from school [in addition to] academics.”

Long reminded those gathered that Upshur County tried to pass a bond for a 5-8 middle school in 2011.

“I think the configuration of 5-8 grades was what made that bond fail,” Long said. “People did not want their fifth-grade students going to school with older kids. I think a lot of times our parents have more sense than we think they do.”

Stankus said she wanted to remind BOE members that Wednesday was not the night to make the decision on the configuration; however, the board did need to decide on amending the CEFP going forward to put the middle school as the number one priority.

“I have asked (Financial Director) Jeffrey Perkins to put together the numbers for 6-8 versus 5-8,” Stankus said.

Perkins said there are two ways to configure the 5-8 layout of a school.

“One way is a [grades] 5-8 middle school and the other is a 6-8 middle school with a fifth-grade wing that allows for the fifth grade to operate separately within the school,” Perkins said. “That 5-8 with the fifth-grade wing, for the number of students we have projected, comes out to about 144,000 square feet and has the highest price tag of about $43 million. A standard 5-8 is 122,400 square feet and has a total expense of $37 million. The 6-8 grade configuration, which is what we have now, is 101,700 square feet and the cost of that construction is estimated to be $31,377,000.”

Long and Wilkerson asked if all that was being asked of the board at the May 18 meeting was to approve the CEFP being changed, and Stankus said yes.

“The change in the CEFP would just allow for all the options to be considered?” Wilkerson asked, and Stankus said yes.

Wilkerson also wanted to know about the current capacity of the county’s elementary schools, and Johnson, the curriculum director, said it varies.

“Right now, Hodgesville has 11 more kindergarteners than they can handle,” Johnson said. “At Rock Cave we only have 10 kindergartners enrolled currently. We have quite a bit of space at Buckhannon Academy Elementary School. We are six below in classrooms there.”

“French Creek and Washington District have space,” Johnson said. “Tennerton is very close to being full and there are spots at Union Elementary.”

“In the future if we had to add additional pre-Ks, are there classrooms available?” Wilkerson asked.

Johnson said no.

“We have 214 pre-K students in the county,” Stankus said.

BOE members voted unanimously to amend the CEFP to add the middle school as the number one priority.

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