As the Kingston City School District’s Board of Education prepped for its public forum on a comprehensive redistricting plan tonight, Thursday, July 12, district Superintendent Paul Padalino continued responding to criticism.

Padalino’s plan was presented to the school board last month, and in its current incarnation would close three more elementary schools, with Anna Devine, Sophie Finn and Zena all earmarked for closure at the end of the 2012-13 school year; each school’s student population would be absorbed as a whole by another elementary school. If closed, the three schools would join Meagher, shuttered a few weeks ago, in bringing the total number of elementary schools down from 11 at the beginning of the 2011-12 school year to seven in just two years’ time.

Efforts to “rightsize” the district, as the superintendent puts it, also include the likelihood of moving the fifth grade into the district’s pair of middle schools, partly to accommodate the elementary closures, Padalino said, and partly because the hope is that the district’s graduation rates would rise if students spend more time in their pre-high school building.

According to Padalino, a K-4, 5-8, 9-12 makes the most sense forKingston, especially when compared to other models under consideration. Padalino said that keeping things exactly as-is would fail to address academic issues in Kingston, a district with an overall dropout rate of 29 percent, a percentage which rises dramatically in various minority, economically disadvantaged and student with disabilities subgroups. The dropout rate amongKingston’s African-American student population is 53 percent. With Hispanic and Latino students, the percentage is 40 percent. Among economically disadvantaged students, the rate is 41 percent, and among students with disabilities it’s 73 percent.

But not everyone agrees — community members heard in the street and read online are saying moving fifth-graders into a middle-school environment is too much too soon for 11-year-olds, and merging elementary schools will hurt, not help, the affected students and devastate the neighborhoods surrounding the to-be-shut schools.

In addressing the school board at a meeting in late June, Kingston Teachers Federation President Laurie Naccarato criticized the plan. “We recognize the financial constraints of the district, and if this is a strictly financial matter then please tell us that, but don’t try to persuade us or the public that this will benefit the children,” she said, adding that Kingston’s own history shows trying to move kids up too early hasn’t necessarily yielded positive results.

“Twenty-five years ago, the sixth grades were moved to the junior highs to form middle school and the ninth-graders were sent to the high school,” she said. “We saw a fallout immediately in large retention rates and failures in the ninth grade which have continued. The sixth grades today still operate in the same way. They are separate entities from the seventh and eighth grades in the middle schools. The worst attributes of middle schools have trickled down, but the best of elementary has not bubbled up.”

Her sentiments were echoed by KTF secretary Kathy Werner, a literacy facilitator at the elementary school level in the district.

“A few weeks ago, I attended the moving up ceremony at the [John F.] Kennedy school,” she said. “I’ve been in the classrooms with these fifth-graders, arguably some of the most at-risk in this city, and I’ve witnessed powerful teaching and powerful learning. I’ve seen a group of young people come together as self-proclaimed reading scholars and they explore novels and non-fiction texts and work together on projects … Frankly, when I looked up at those beautiful faces, I felt despair when I thought about these same students next year being folded into the mix at the Miller Middle School. And this is not meant to disparage any middle school teachers; I worked in middle school myself for six years. However, when you become one of 120 students seen by a teacher compared to one of 25 students seen by that teacher, there’s no question that the dynamic shifts in ways that are not beneficial for at-risk students.”

Werner added that disrupting the elementary school configuration would be detrimental to the education of children in the district, and suggested considering a plan which not only wouldn’t move the fifth-graders into the middle schools, but would also bring 6th graders back. A K-6, 7-8, 9-12 configuration is used some area school districts like Saugerties.

“Our elementary schools are all strong, vibrant learning communities,” Werner said. “Every student is owned by everyone in that building, and our elementary schools provide even our neediest students with a safe place to grow. I suggest that moving yet another grade to a larger middle school, while it might seem financially wise, would be educationally foolish in the extreme. It’s a question of priorities. If we’re serious about wanting to improve graduation rates and student success, let’s take a serious look at the K-6 configuration in order to maintain the safety net that an elementary school is able to provide more effectively … Indeed, many of the middle school initiatives are designed to create elementary-like atmospheres. So why move even younger students to this flawed model? Again, what is our priority as a district? Is it money or is it students?”

Alternate scenario

Padalino said he expected to answer those questions, as well as responding to criticism that the fifth-graders would not be separated enough from the older students if moved into the middle schools.

“I don’t want to say ‘separated,’ as though our sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders are people other people need to be separated from,” Padalino said. “Sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders are people’s children, too. I understand the need for there to be a certain level of segregation, and there should be for the 5th grade. But I also think that a 5-6-7-8 model is a true middle school model and we would be able to offer some educational advantages.”