Franklin City School Board votes to merge 8th grade with FHS

Published 6:11 pm Thursday, July 21, 2022

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The Franklin City School Board voted 6-0 at a special called meeting June 30 to merge the eighth grade with Franklin High School effective the 2022-23 academic school year.

Tamara Sterling

Ward 3 Board Member Tonya Smith was not present for the vote.

In a presentation to the board that led up to the vote during the meeting, Franklin City Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Tamara Sterling shared steps to a successful version of this transition as taking place in three phases, most of which have been completed.

In Phase I, she noted that an assessment of critical teacher shortage areas was completed. Findings included that hard-to-staff areas in mathematics and science affected the middle and high school redesign. 

She added that meetings were conducted with the chief academic officer, director of accountability, human resources, middle and high school administration, transportation, the school board chair and vice chair, city manager and the mayor regarding the possibility of merging eighth grade with the high school.

In Phase II, FCPS communicated with the Virginia Department of Education on steps to take to execute the merge, Sterling stated. The VDOE provided FCPS with a form to complete so it can begin the merger process. 

The VDOE also communicated that because Franklin High School had previously hosted eighth grade, the merger would not be difficult and the number assigned to FHS would not have to be changed.

Amy L. Phillips

“Eighth grade actually used to be at the high school until 2003,” said Ward 2 Board Member and Board Chair Amy L. Phillips, whose term on the board expired at the conclusion of the day June 30. “Because we’ve had eighth grade at the high school before, it’s not as much red tape with moving the eighth grade back to the high school.”

Sterling said Phase III included providing the school board with a presentation outlining the benefits of the eighth-grade merger. 

Then she began to mention future measures that would be important in ensuring a successful transition. 

She stated that if the school board approved the merger, a transition and communication plan would go into effect immediately for the months of July and August. The communication plan would include face-to-face town hall meetings, mailings, counseling meet and greets, a schedule review with parents, code of conduct meetings, junior varsity sports meetings, a webinar for students about successfully transitioning to the high school, and a Franklin High School tour specifically for eighth-grade students.

The last part of Phase III that Sterling highlighted was a transition plan, which includes evaluating the number of classes needed, making a furniture assessment, studying transportation schedules, adjusting numbers with food and nutrition and evaluating if another counselor is necessary at the high school.

Next, Sterling’s presentation began to address the rationale for the merger, first highlighting a critical staffing shortage that the school division has been experiencing.

She noted that in 2017, Joseph P. King Jr. Middle School was redesigned to include a significant increase in advanced courses for middle school students. Currently, JPK offers pre-algebra, algebra I and geometry.

However, she then stated that during the 2020-21 and 2021-22 school years, the middle school had not had a fully licensed and endorsed teacher to teach algebra I and geometry. Franklin High School has had two advanced mathematics teachers retire, and though they returned to the high school to teach during the 2021-22 school year, one will not return in 2022-23, retiring again.

In light of this, Sterling provided the following recommendation: Merge the high school courses currently offered at JPK with FHS for the 2022-23 school year and beyond.

“The merger will decrease the amount of endorsed teachers needed to teach algebra I and geometry,” the presentation stated. “Currently, there is a need for two teachers at the middle school level and three ideally at the high school level. Merging will leave one teacher at the middle school that will need to be endorsed for algebra I only.” 

Sterling stated that the high school will need endorsed teachers in algebra I, geometry, algebra II, pre-calculus, DE pre-calculus and DE calculus.

A Franklin City Public Schools news release on the merger noted that the June 30 special called meeting, which took place in a first-floor conference room at Town Hall, included a Zoom forum, with FHS Principal Travis Felts being the first to speak remotely to the board.

He discussed what Sterling called the Eighth-Grade Early High School Academy.

The high school credit eighth-grade courses that have been available at JPK include algebra I, geometry, Spanish I, art I — plus I (after school) and HPE 9 — plus I (after school).

The presentation on the Early High School Academy noted that if the merge was approved, the future high school credit eighth-grade courses list at FHS would include algebra I, algebra II, geometry, Spanish I, Spanish II, art I (scheduled during the day), Art II, HPE 9 (scheduled during the day), HPE 10, literature and composition (writing lab), band, chorus, JROTC and any high school course for which the prerequisite has been met.

Phillips, in a July 11 interview, addressed the key motivators driving the merger.

“Looking at the structure of each grade level as it was already and when such a large portion of that grade level is already taking high school courses, from an academic standpoint it made sense,” she said. “That was a large motivator. And yes, staffing was another large motivator.”

The FCPS news release stated that during the June 30 meeting, Director of Assessments and Accountability Meta Stratton reviewed impacts of the merger related to testing the eighth-grade students.

Her presentation noted that current eighth-grade testing includes Grade 8 reading, Grade 8 math, algebra I, geometry, Grade 8 writing, civics and Grade 8 science.

The following benefits were listed for testing if the eighth grade was merged with the high school:

  • At-risk students can have an additional block of literature and composition to help prepare for the reading and writing SOL;
  • 4 x 4 bell schedules allow for students not to have to take all SOL tests at the same time; and
  • Students who do not pass a course or SOL test during the first semester will have an opportunity to retest or retake the course in the second semester as opposed to waiting until the next school year.

Next, the presentation during the special called board meeting included an accountability review with the VDOE, which featured the following questions and answers:

Q: How will this move affect the accreditation rating at each school?

A: The eighth-grade tests and attendance for chronic absenteeism will now be included in the calculation for the high school.

Q: Will the high school be able to use the previous SOL scores for each subject from JPK to establish their three-year average? 

A: No, only tests taken at the high school will be used for the three-year average. FHS will have to start from scratch for these accreditation ratings.

Q: Will the eighth graders be considered high school students? 

A: The high school metrics are for grades 9-12, so the VDOE will not consider these students to be high school students.

Q: Will the high school get a new school number in order to include grade 8?

A: No, the high school will not get a new number. The high school will remain a high school and not a combined school as the grade range permissible by the VDOE is 8-12.

Q: Will Algebra I or Geometry taken by an eighth grader at the high school count for the federal accountability requirement of a verified credit in math at the high school level? 

A: No, they will need an additional verified credit in math during grades 9-12.

The school division news release noted that Supervisor of Transportation Teresa Blackwell next addressed the needs of her department.

Her presentation indicated that JPK and FHS students currently board the bus at the same times, so no changes would be necessary for transportation at this time if the merger was approved.

Additionally, she noted that transportation will continue to support the nutrition department with transporting food as necessary.

Nutrition was the next subject addressed, with Supervisor of Nutrition Nelisa Vargas discussing what the impact of the merger would be on her department.

In reference to JPK, with the reduction in the number of students there, middle school staff would begin providing meals for Senior Services of Southeastern Virginia that are presently being provided by FHS staff.

“Currently the FHS staff prepares meals for breakfast, lunch, snacks and supper for students, as well as breakfast and lunch for SSSEVA,” Sterling said in a July 14 email interview. “Moving 80 students to FHS next year will just increase the workload for already busy staff. Therefore, relocating where the SSSEVA meals are prepared will greatly reduce the workload for FHS.”

Vargas’ presentation continued with the note that training on menu creation and nutrition value and meal patterns would be provided for SSSEVA.

The JPK staff count would remain the same. This would allow them to serve the sixth grade, seventh grade and SSSEVA, as well as reopen and operate the salad station and snack bar.

In reference to FHS, an adjustment would be made to accommodate the eighth-grade lunch meal pattern. Serving sizes and calorie content differ from grades 9-12.

There would be training on the lunch pattern, serving sizes and calorie content requirements. Additional equipment, such as serving spoons, would be required because, for example, grades 6-8 receive 1/2 cup of daily vegetables while grades 9-12 receive 1 cup.

Additional employees would not be necessary at this time.

Vargas’ presentation stated, for both JPK and FHS, that a VDOE regional specialist advised of a requirement in the National School Lunch Program application. Grade levels would need to be updated for each school and an application would need to be resubmitted for approval.

The presentation noted that a review of the merger’s impact on nutrition at JPK and FHS would be conducted after 30 days and necessary changes would be made.

Concluding the merger presentation to the school board was Assistant Superintendent of Finance and Federal Programs Jeff Ryder, who spoke to the financial impact of the merger.

He noted that the cost impact would be net neutral. JPK is on the same route and schedule as FHS, so there should be no change in transportation costs. More meals at FHS and fewer meals at JPK would mean the school division is just moving people and food from one building to another, so there would be no change in cost for nutrition. Lastly, JPK would remain open for the sixth and seventh graders, so there would be no savings in administration or utilities costs.

The FCPS release stated that with regard to the FHS population, Felts figured there would be 284 students in ninth through 12th grades, and with another 80 students coming from JPK, the student body should total 364 people. Sterling suggested that number could rise to as much as 400. 

Felts also pointed out that the transition would create more learning and athletic opportunities for the incoming students.

In the July 11 interview, Phillips acknowledged that eighth graders would not be able to participate in varsity sports, “but they’ll still be able to do JV, which is another great advantage because that’s always been a logistical issue with the eighth grade being at the middle school.

“If you had a student that wanted to participate in sports, they had to get to the high school and then (there) was (the challenge of) picking them up from the high school and getting them home, and a lot of times parents didn’t want to go through that hassle,” she continued. “But now (students will) already be at the high school, so it’ll probably increase their ability to participate in those extracurricular activities because they’re already on-site.”