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Long IslandEducation

Massapequa divided over switch on sixth-graders’ relocation

Beth Henry, the parent of an incoming sixth-grader

Beth Henry, the parent of an incoming sixth-grader in the Massapequa school district, is opposed to sixth-graders going to Berner Middle School. She is shown in her Massapequa home on Thursday, July 20, 2017. Photo Credit: Barry Sloan

In Massapequa, the battle rages. Controversy and debate over the pullback of Berner Middle School’s expansion to include hundreds of sixth-graders have riven the South Shore community.

At issue is whether those students are best taught in the system’s six elementary schools or in the middle school, with its more varied academic and extracurricular offerings.

The sixth-grade move, discussed since at least 2014, received school board approval in early 2016 and was set to happen when classes start in six weeks. Then came the May election of a school board candidate opposed to the switch and the board’s abrupt reversal in a 3-2 vote on July 13.

Opponents of the change have been wearing red shirts and the other side has donned blue. Fights are rampant on social media — all in this place historically united under the motto “Once a Chief, Always a Chief.”

With the Sept. 6 start of school fast approaching, residents last week filed two appeals to state Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia, seeking a ruling to allow the sixth-grade move to Berner to go forward.

There is one consensus in the community: The fights are “deplorable,” “disgraceful” and “disgusting.”

“These are the exact same people that came together after Hurricane Sandy,” said Lisa Hansen, parent of an incoming 11-year-old sixth-grader, who supports the change. “You go to the supermarket, the local pizzeria. What side are you on?”

The district already had hired and reassigned teachers and staff, approved programs for students at Berner, reconfigured classrooms and revised bus-load levels. Before the school year ended in June, the moving-up of fifth-graders to the middle school was celebrated in various ways — the giving of special certificates, a boat cruise, a bagel breakfast and dances.

Now, officials are scrambling to reaccommodate sixth-graders in the elementary schools.

Superintendent Lucille Iconis said the district does not have an estimate on attendant costs or know how many teachers will be excessed. About $1.4 million to provide for the move was included in the school budget, which was overwhelmingly approved by residents.

“The bottom line is this community does not feel that students are ready to enter the middle school when they are in sixth grade,” said Iconis, a strong supporter of the change. “Obviously, we follow the wishes of the board and . . . we are working tirelessly to try and do this. I can assure the community that they will receive the same quality of education that they have received in the past.”

The issue affects about 550 sixth-graders among the district’s projected 6,862 enrollment for 2017-18. The middle school, which has grades seven and eight, is expected to have 1,076 students in the coming academic year.

Brian Butler, whose three children attend district schools, is the newly elected trustee who campaigned against the Berner expansion and pushed the board’s reversal vote.

In an interview, he cited research that students are best served by delaying the transition to middle school. “All these other districts had done it because of financial or space issues, neither of which Massapequa faces right now,” he said.

Trustee Joseph LaBella, who has opposed the merger, said both sides have merit.

The top students “are going to get [foreign] language, they’re going to get clubs, they’re going to excel and do very well,” he said of the outlook at Berner. “The bottom 10 percent, the goofy kids, someone the kids are going to pick on, they’re going to get hurt by it.”

Taking the other view is Gary Baldinger, a trustee who voted for Berner’s expansion. He believes that a middle school model with grades six, seven and eight would work best.

“All the state curriculum is set in a six-to-eight model,” he said. “This move will strengthen our elementary, middle school and overall strengthen our school district as our students prepare to compete locally, nationally and globally for the best colleges and careers.”

Among Long Island’s 124 school districts, at least 84 schools serve grades six through eight exclusively, according to a Newsday analysis of state Education Department data. Iconis said her research found that more than 90 percent of Long Island’s middle schools include a sixth grade.

Tom Phillips, executive director of the New York State Middle School Association, based in Niagara Falls, said the majority of middle schools statewide serve grades six, seven and eight. It is a model that suits that age group, he believes.

“These kids don’t know who they are and whether they are coming or going. And in a two-year school, they transition in and transition out and they really don’t belong to anything,” said Phillips, former superintendent of the upstate Watkins Glen school district. “Now I totally get the parents’ concerns about sixth-graders with eighth-graders, but as a community we have to tackle those issues.”

He said districts should develop a sixth- through eighth-grade grouping that includes a structure with students divided into teams, to address academics as well as their social and emotional needs. Many districts in New York have shifted grades because of financial struggles and declining enrollment, he said.

John Engberg, an education researcher and senior economist with the RAND Corp., explained the rationale for keeping sixth-graders within elementary schools. Middle school, he said, “is a time of turmoil for kids because of changing hormones, and they benefit from the nurturing environment that you get in an elementary school, a school that usually has fewer kids per grade, where the teachers have known them since growing up from kindergarten.”

The opposing view is “as kids are getting into adolescence, they need the amenities and the challenges that you can only get in a comprehensive middle school,” Engberg said. “They need a swimming pool, they need a soccer field, they need a science lab, they need the kind of things that high schools give kids.”

The South Huntington school district provides one of the most unique experiences for sixth-graders among public schools on Long Island: The Silas Wood Sixth Grade Center serves nearly 500 students in their own, separate building, with their own staff of educators.

The center was established about two decades ago to resolve a space issue, Superintendent David Bennardo said.

“I have become a believer — a true believer like you wouldn’t believe that there is no better way to educate kids than in a single-grade building — especially for the middle-level learner,” he said, adding that the configuration allows educators to completely focus on the sixth grade.

The Massapequa district had looked at adding the sixth grade to Berner before — in 1989 and the early 1990s — but space was unavailable. The issue arose again in 2014, when the school board voted against an advisory task force recommendation to move sixth-graders to Berner. Iconis recommended then that the committee be allowed to continue research and expand its work.

The board held another vote in early June, 16 months after the panel had approved the Berner expansion and shortly before Butler took office, to enact a compromise. The district would proceed with the change, but a district-wide advisory referendum would be held in January. The panel earlier this month rescinded its call for the advisory referendum, at the same meeting in which it voted to halt the sixth-graders’ move.

“I got nothing but a barrage that I’m a flip-flopper,” LaBella said of the compromise attempt. “My intention was to try to reduce the animosity and try to take the heat off of it. The compromise didn’t work. They’re all mad at each other.”

Parent Ilisa Polansky, whose son will be starting first grade and whose daughter is entering third grade, questioned the cost and said services could be added at the elementary schools.

“My heart opened up for the children who do have issues, who it takes them a little bit longer to mature, and get used to the changing of the classes and the rigmarole that’s associated with what happens at the junior high school,” she said.

Jennifer LaCalandra, a parent of 10-year-old twin girls, Ava and Alexa, who just finished fifth grade, said she must devise new Individualized Education Programs, known as an IEPs, for her daughters.

She said her children were eager to receive extra support in a middle school setting when they would be helped in the classroom. In elementary school, they are taken out of class for services.

“For me, I want to give my children the best education possible. That is not going back to elementary school. It’s going to Berner, where they can thrive and learn and grow,” LaCalandra said.

Iconis said that the district will meet again in coming weeks with the families of about 40 students regarding their IEPs.

Butler sympathized with the parents, but said the district should not have told parents the move was happening following his election.

The union representing Massapequa teachers and secretaries has remained neutral, said Tomia Smith, president of The Massapequa Federation of Teachers. The union has asked the district to consider ways to implement some of the sixth-grade curriculum at the elementary schools, she said.

Beth Henry, whose daughter Ella is to attend sixth grade, was among the parents opposed to the change who wore red at recent board meetings.

About a month ago, Henry thought the acrimony had gone too far. She and a few friends ditched the red shirts.

“Some of us just said it’s time for us to heal our community,” she said. “We decided it was time to stop that, to wear blue and gold to show support of being a Massapequa chief.”

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