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Middle School Benefits and Costs Scrutinized : Education: The Norwalk-La Mirada district closed seven intermediate shools in 1978, but now is getting pressure from parents to reopen them.


NORWALK — The Norwalk-La Mirada Unified School District is looking for ways to bring back intermediate schools in response to parents' concerns that some children are too young to go directly from elementary to high school.

The district closed its seven intermediate schools in 1978 because of declining enrollment. The current system places students in kindergarten through seventh grade in elementary schools and eighth- through 12th-graders in high schools.

Although board members agreed Monday night on the benefits of middle schools, they are concerned about whether the 19,000-student district can afford to reopen them.

Some parents said students in grades six through eight should be put together because of their psychological needs.

Eighth-graders are not ready for high school, said Pat Goulden, a parent who has been active in the middle school movement. At the high schools, "they are in no-man's-land" without an identity, she added.

Goulden said both of her children started at La Mirada High School in the eighth grade and had no problems. However, she attributed this to their above-average height and the fact that they already had extracurricular interests.

Other problems include the academic isolation of eighth-graders, who realize that only the ninth through 12th grades count for credit toward graduation and college admission, said La Mirada resident Ron Boatright, who presented the board Monday with a petition signed by 150 residents in favor of middle schools.

What eighth-graders need is a school to prepare them for the rigors of high school, Boatright said.

Sixth- and seventh-graders also suffer socially and are set apart from students in the lower grades, he added.

The district has three high schools and 20 elementary schools.

The district has a core program or "school within a school" for eighth-graders that attempts to ease the transition to high school. The program gives eighth-graders their own set of teachers and restricts them to a separate section of campus.

Michael Newcomb, principal of La Pluma Elementary School in La Mirada, said: "Children (at that age) need an opportunity to dig in before being hit with all of society's ills. (They) are children one moment, adults the next."

Among the advantages middle schools would offer students is the chance to develop interests, for example, in crafts, performing arts or fine art, said Marilyn Smith, principal of Hargitt Elementary School in Norwalk.

Not everyone thinks middle schools are the best course for the district to take, especially if it means converting some elementary schools to middle schools. Preliminary plans feature conversion as a way to cut costs, Deputy Supt. Howard Rainey said.

Many parents of grade-schoolers said they support a program of middle schools but object to plans that would require their children to leave their local elementary schools and be bused to other sites in the district.

Residents living near grade schools also may not want them to be converted, said Shirley Bogdanoff, a La Mirada mother. Bogdanoff, who lives opposite Dulles Elementary School, said she might worry if 11-, 12- and 13-year-olds were coming into her residential neighborhood, for fear they might cause trouble.

Although Dulles is not one of the schools targeted for conversion, Bogdanoff said she could see how it would be an issue for residents.

Bogdanoff added that middle schools would be a nice but costly addition. The main question is whether the district can support them. "If this is an issue that is going to bankrupt our district, I don't want to see them," Bogdanoff said.

Other parents are hesitant simply because the present system is all they know. Christine Horton, who has a son in La Mirada High School and a daughter at Dulles Elementary, was ambivalent about the possibility of placing her daughter in middle school with sixth-, seventh-, and eighth-graders from all over the district.

"If I had a preference, I would have her stay in the elementary school because I don't know what it (the middle school) would be like," Horton said.

The additional costs of the middle schools each year would range from $100,000 to $880,000, depending on how many schools were converted, Rainey said. Funding for middle schools would come from the general fund, which has money available because a state grant is partly subsidizing districtwide reading and busing programs previously paid for by the district.

Should the grant run out, Rainey said other financing options include developing and leasing land owned by the school district.

Financial concerns scuttled the board's attempt two years ago to bring back the middle schools.

Board member Armando Moreno acknowledged this but asked, "When are we ever going to afford the middle schools?" He said that "not one (of the parents) spoke against middle schools," although some spoke against closing elementary schools.

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