Kennedy Van Tighem and Lincoln DeFault learn initial coding skills Sept. 11 with Bee Bots at Wide Hollow STEAM in Yakima.

A proposed switch to a K-6 elementary school system in West Valley School District is likely off the table after a community forum Tuesday night brought to light negative impacts on the district’s renowned music programs, according to the president of the school board that will decide on the matter.

The Wide Hollow STEAM Elementary School library overflowed Tuesday evening with parents, students, teachers and community members who gathered to provide input on possible reconfiguration options for the elementary grade levels.

Input fell on both sides of the aisle, but an emphasis was placed on the importance of West Valley’s music program, which has been recognized as a leader in the state and throughout the Pacific Northwest.

Several parents of band or choir students and teachers expressed concern that changing the system would undercut the programs.

High school band and choir teacher Jeremy Freisz echoed their concerns. He said music teachers in the district worked across grades and buildings.

“We as a team have talked about all these models, and there’s some that I think we could still function with,” he said. “I’m sorry but the K-6 model is going to destroy the music program.”

While no decision was finalized, board President Mike Meyer said he felt one point was made clear during the meeting: “I heard loud and clear: K-6 is not much of a consideration. It got shot out of the water.”

He emphasized the feedback on the music program as the deciding factor.

The proposals

K-6 elementary schools were one of several proposals the district has been considering in recent months.

The district currently has students broken up over five grade groupings, creating four transitions before graduation. Elementary schools are grades K-4, a middle school has fifth and sixth grade students, a junior high hosts seventh and eighth graders, freshman are on their own campus and high school students in sophomore to senior year are on one campus.

The district considered minimizing transitions, as research shows positive correlation between student achievement and fewer transitions in school.

The conversation was sparked by the construction of new Apple Valley and Summitview elementary campuses, which are expected to be completed in time for the 2021-22 school year. With the campuses expanded and updated, the district had the opportunity to look at school boundaries and grades in each building.

Since November, a committee has been weighing the possibility of a K-6 elementary system. If that were approved, seventh and eighth graders would maintain their own campus, the middle school would be used as a seventh elementary campus and the high school would be for freshman through senior students, Superintendent Michael Brophy said.

About two weeks ago, the committee also began weighing other options:

  • Maintaining K-4, placing fifth through eighth graders in two middle school campuses, and having grades nine through 12 together; or
  • K-5 elementary schools with sixth through eighth graders in two middle school campuses and freshman to seniors in one high school.

The conversation Tuesday heavily emphasized concerns over students in grades K-6, rather than older grades. But community members’ opinions fell on both sides of the conversation.

Common themes of those in favor of a K-5 or K-6 system included:

  • Concern over students being pressured to grow up too fast in the current middle school model.
  • Fifth and sixth graders currently lacking recess time at a young age.
  • A desire for fifth and sixth graders to stay in the system of one teacher across all subjects, rather than transition into several subjects and teachers like the current middle school system.
  • Concern that students who have experienced trauma do better with fewer transitions, making the current model a burden on and risk to them.

Proponents of the current model emphasized:

  • The elective programs available to middle school students.
  • Costs for the district to make the transition, including changes in textbooks.
  • Middle school teachers’ specialization in subjects, which would make them unprepared to teach students all subjects in the elementary single-class setting.

One woman mentioned that this was the second grade reconfiguration in the district since her sophomore son had been in the school system, and asked the board to make decisions keeping the long-term impacts in mind.

Others questioned why the proposal was coming after voters had already approved the rebuilding of the two elementary schools, which was done in part to resolve overcrowding that community members worried reconfiguration might re-create.

But the most prominent concern of the evening was how West Valley music programs might be impacted by any changes. Several parents and students said the program had a significant impact on students’ lives.

Meyer said community feedback had been valuable and had given the board new things to mull over. But for him, the K-6 proposal would be pushed aside, given community opinion. A K-5 change might still be plausible, he said, before adding that any decision would be that of the board’s — not his alone as president.

What’s next?

The committee is expected to review community feedback during a Thursday meeting. The full details for each elementary proposal and data collected by the committee are available at www.wvsd208.org/apps/news/article/1158073.

The changes could also result in ninth grade students remaining at the main high school campus. If this were to be approved, the freshman campus would be used for other district programs, such as additional career pathways.

The potential programs at the freshman campus will be discussed at a community forum at 6 p.m. Feb. 11 at Wide Hollow STEAM Elementary School.

Meyer said the board hopes to make any decision to maintain or change the grade configuration during a Feb. 25 board meeting, but no plans are set in stone.

Reach Janelle Retka at jretka@yakimaherald.com or on Twitter: @janelleretka