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Fenton Sixth-graders Will be at AGS Donaldson Drive Campus in the Fall

Board approves reconfiguration at special meeting Monday

It's official — Fenton sixth-graders will begin classes at Andrew G. Schmidt Middle School Donaldson Drive Campus this fall, for the 2011-12 school year.

At a special meeting on Monday, the board of education voted 5-0 to place all three middle school grades under one roof, saving the district $1 million in three years. In addition to the cost savings, having the sixth-graders at AGS Donaldson Drive Campus instead of the Ellen Street Campus will provide more educational opportunities for them, Superintendent Dr. Timothy Jalkanen said.

 A sixth grade student who could benefit from taking a seventh grade class, for example, would be able to. School officials are discussing how to use space at the Ellen Street Campus, after sixth grade is moved. There are many options, which they are not ready to disclose yet, Jalkanen said.

Parents gave mixed reactions on the issue.

 Daniel Zawlocki, who is a high school counselor in another district, said he believes school officials should have addressed issues such as before- and after-school child care for sixth-graders, and transportation, before approving the reconfiguration. "I'm just really not pleased." Many sixth-graders are 11 years old, and, legally, 11-year-olds cannot be left home alone. "I need my child to be safe," he said.

Laurie Clark, also a Fenton Area Public Schools parent, said she, too, has concerns about child care being available for sixth grade students. She hopes it is something school officials will consider.

Dior Rushton, a third parent, said, from a taxpayer's perspective, the reconfiguration makes sense. It will save the district $320,000 per year, $1 million in three years. Considering school funding cuts from Lansing and the amount of per pupil funding being uncertain from year to year, she supports the change.

Zawlocki said he appreciates that sixth graders will be segregated from older middle school students. But there is a big difference, socially, between 11-year-olds and middle school students who are 13 or 14. All but one or two sixth grade classrooms will be located in one pod, with the remaining one or two classes nearby. They will be located away from eighth-graders, with seventh grade classrooms positioned in between, Jalkanen said.

 In addition, the different grade levels will each have separate lunch times. Trustee Sandra Mathews-Barnes said her daughter was among the last sixth grade class to share a building with the seventh- and eighth-graders, before sixth grade was moved to the Ellen Street Campus. "I shared many of the same concerns these parents are voicing." She knows administration looked at ways to separate the sixth grade from older students at AGS Middle School's Donaldson Drive Campus. In addition, Mathews-Barnes hopes the district looks at the child care issue for sixth graders. She supports the fact the district is going to reconfigure its middle school, "but we need to pay attention to concerns parents have voiced," she said.

Class sizes will remain the same, Jalkanen said. And, because of the added lunch period, the lunchroom will not be more crowded.

Middle school students, sixth to eighth grades, have always ridden the same buses. Treasurer Richard DesJardins said he hasn't liked the idea of one middle school grade being rather isolated from the others. And, there are obvious cost issues, he said.

Fenton Education Association President Lynn Thompson, also an AGS Middle School teacher, said the only concern teachers have is the traffic situation in the morning. It's not a safe situation in front of the Donaldson Drive Campus in the morning, with students running across the street and cars coming in from all directions. She hopes the school board looks at the safety issue, and possibly opens the back driveway to the school for staff, and eighth grade parents dropping off students. Sixth and seventh grade parents could drop off students in front of the building.

Trustee Roger Ellis, also a member of the police department, said his main concern is morning traffic at AGS Donaldson Drive Campus. But parents want to drop off their children because of work situations and other reasons. His suggestion is possibly having a "zero hour" with some type of activity or other supervision at AGS, so parents can drop students off an hour early. It would alleviate traffic problems, Ellis said. Sixth grade was left "off on an island" at the Ellen Street Campus, he said. The current reconfiguration was a natural progression of where the district had to go, Ellis believes. He likes the idea of keeping sixth-graders in one pod, and having seventh grade classrooms located between sixth-graders and the eighth grade.

Secretary Nora Kryza said there is not a good traffic situation at any of the school buildings. "Looking in the mirror is probably the biggest fix on that one," she said. She'd like to see police occasionally.

The board unanimously adopted the reconfiguration. President David Walker and Trustee Brian Horton were absent. 

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