Faced with overpopulated schools across the county, the MCPS Board of Education approved plans to create a new middle school in the Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School cluster on Nov. 18.
The middle school will decrease crowding in B-CC cluster elementary schools, all seven of which exceeded their capacities last school year. One cluster elementary school, North Chevy Chase, has 427 students this year, close to twice its 230-student capacity.
Chevy Chase and North Chevy Chase are currently the only two elementary schools in the county with sixth grade students. When the new middle school is built, some sixth graders from the elementary schools will transfer there.
In his Oct. 15 proposal to build a new middle school, MCPS superintendent Jerry Weast acknowledged academic disadvantages for sixth graders in elementary school.
“Grade 6 students’ academic, social and emotional development are better achieved in a middle school setting than in an elementary school setting,” Weast said in the proposal. “Middle school provides a more appropriate environment for students to develop confidence, competence and independent decision-making skills in a culture that supports and challenges students academically and encourages them to explore their interests.”
Some parents and teachers from Chevy Chase and North Chevy Chase believe sixth grade students in elementary school are deprived of the foreign language, social studies and arts opportunities given to middle school students.
It’s acceptable for sixth grade students to attend elementary school if they’re given the same level of education as their middle school peers, said Jenny Mitchell, PTSA president at Chevy Chase. However, because there’s a disparity, students must be moved, she said.
Westland Middle School, where Chevy Chase and North Chevy Chase students attend seventh and eighth grade, has numerous after-school opportunities that aren’t offered at the two elementary schools, said Sandy Chambers, president of the North Chevy Chase PTA.
“The social aspect behind sixth graders given a fifth grade environment is significant,” said Joy Martini, sixth grade representative in North Chevy Chase PTA.
“Students get one less year to find activities they really enjoy and friends who cherish the same hobbies.”
Teachers at the two elementary schools have seen a disparity between the technology available for students at Westland and the elementary students.
“When the elementary and middle school math teachers in the cluster get together to share instructional ideas, middle school teachers always show the Prometheon flipcharts they use,” said Sandra Cornell, sixth grade team leader at North Chevy Chase. “They look at us like we’re crazy when we say we just use a blackboard and chalk because we don’t have Prometheon boards.”
Yet, Cornell said she recognized there were some advantages to keeping students in elementary school for an extra year.
“Elementary school is a smaller environment, so it isn’t as overwhelming as being thrown into a crowd of hundreds of middle schoolers,” Cornell said. “There’s more of a family feel in an elementary school, and teachers can focus more on their sixth grade students because they don’t have to deal with seventh or eighth graders.”