Parents of CUSD fourth-graders prepare for their children to attend newly configured middle schools in 2015
A structural change to the Chico Unified School District that moves sixth-graders out of elementary schools and into the district’s junior-high schools has some parents upset over the way the news was announced and the school district a bit on the defensive.
“The first I heard about it was a ‘blip’ on the TV news on Friday [Nov. 1] that Chico Unified was changing to the middle-school configuration,” said Mary Oliver, the mother of a boy in the fourth grade at Hooker Oak Elementary School. “It didn’t really strike me until the following day when I was watching the news, when they said that current fourth-graders would be affected.”
Oliver said she did not like the “cloak-and-dagger” way that the Chico Unified School District handled the creation and passage of the reconfiguration plan, which calls for sixth-graders to start attending Chico, Bidwell and Marsh junior-high schools in the fall of 2015. While not necessarily opposed to having her son attend middle school when he is a sixth-grader, Oliver said she is not happy with the way she found out about the plan or with what she sees as her lack of opportunity for input.
She said the district had asked parents for input on what to do with the $78 million from last year’s passage of Measure E that is earmarked for repairs, upgrades and new construction of CUSD schools.
“All previous meetings at Hooker Oak had to do with facilities,” she said. “We talked about computers, bathrooms, heating and air-conditioning, hot water—but never, ever was it anything about changing the configuration of the schools. …
“I wasn’t ready for this,” she said. “All of a sudden, my kid’s going to be in junior high.”
The message to parents sent home with all CUSD elementary-school students on Monday, Nov. 4, reads: “We are pleased to inform you the CUSD School Board members voted at the October 23, 2013, meeting to restructure the district’s schools to a K-5, 6-8, 9-12 grade configuration.”
Trouble is, a number of parents had already been apprised, days earlier, of the CUSD’s plan via both TV news and a Facebook page that actually scooped Action News, which reported at 4:43 p.m. on Oct. 31 that “[t]he Chico Unified School District has confirmed they will be switching to a ‘middle-school’ model beginning fall of 2015.”
Minutes earlier, the Facebook page called “Life in Chico, CA” had posted a copy of a letter from CUSD Superintendent Kelly Staley to school-district staff announcing the district’s intention to “house students in K-5, 6-8 and 9-12 grade configurations” beginning with the 2015-16 school year. The letter also mentioned that the “Common Core Standards, adopted by California and 45 other states, identify learning connections in grade-level blocks of K-5, 6-8 and 9-12.” The Common Core State Standards Initiative is a state-led initiative aimed at standardizing math and English instruction nationwide, and is already being phased into CUSD schools.
“Hey Chico, a little bird just passed along this letter written by school Superintendent Kelly Staley to the CUSD staff,” read the poster’s introduction to the letter. “We somehow missed this decision by the school board to create middle schools by moving 6th-graders to the junior-high locations.”
Many commenters weighed in, both pro and con, including one who, like Oliver, wasn’t against the plan but was displeased at how it came about: “I don’t think it’s a bad decision, but I’m upset about how they got feedback. The only meeting I knew about was from a district auto-call two days before the [Oct. 23] meeting.”
For its part, the school district takes some blame for the way word was spread.
“It’s probably partly our fault for not getting the letter out [to parents] before [the story] hit the news,” said John Bohannon, CUSD director of secondary and alternative education. “Somebody [within the CUSD] told [the local news media] and they decided to run with the story.”
He defended the district’s actions leading up to the Oct. 23 meeting of the Board of Trustees, pointing out that the reconfiguration issue was listed on the agenda (which was available online the Friday preceding the meeting).
“The background on this is that the idea emanated from discussions regarding our  Facilities Master Plan, which started right after the passage of Measure E last November,” Bohannon said.
Part of the process leading up to the decision to create middle schools comprising grades six through eight—an idea, incidentally, that the CUSD had tossed around in 2004 (see “Middle management,” CN&R, Aug. 26, 2004)—involved the district’s hiring of “planners and architects, as a team to evaluate the needs of the district,” Bohannon said. “They literally walked through every room on every campus. At that point—last spring—we had not discussed moving sixth grade.”
Next, the CUSD “went to a process where[by] educators and parents met with the planning team and they all had a chance to give input on site needs. … Two things came to the surface: One, the elementary schools are overfull and continue to grow, and two, all of the schools [in the CUSD] have a lot of facilities needs.”
A “visioning group” that included the principals of all CUSD schools “would go to schools and get input from teachers and parents” and report back to the planning team, which would in turn offer information to be relayed back to parents and teachers, he said.
An open-to-the-public Measure E workshop was held at the Sept. 4 school-board meeting, Bohannon said. “No decisions were made, except some board members took off [the list] some options [on ways to spend Measure E funding] that didn’t seem financially reasonable,” such as converting Marsh Junior High to a K-6 school.
At an Oct. 2 board workshop, options for spending the $15 million of Measure E money currently available to the district, which include the cost-prohibitive option of building a new elementary school, were narrowed down. By the Oct. 23 board meeting, three options remained, and two of them included creating middle schools made up of grades six to eight.
Between the Oct. 2 workshop and the board’s Oct. 23 meeting, the CUSD conducted “facilities community-input meetings,” on Oct. 8, 9 and 10, Bohannon said. “Fliers were sent out to all the schools; ‘dialers’ [auto-calls] as well.” The reconfiguration plan “wasn’t a backroom deal,” he said.
“It seemed like the needs of facilities and the needs of our new curriculum aligned and made it appropriate for us to make this decision,” Bohannon said. “We are the only district in Butte County that does a [grade] seven-eight configuration. I would say the trend in California for a while is to go to six-eight middle schools.”
For her part, Oliver is still wary: “It makes me feel like I can’t trust the district. I mean, is there anything else in their pipeline that they’re not telling us about?”