Starting next school year, Su-Valley will begin offering sixth-grade. School and District officials say the idea is to add more options for students and parents. KTNA’s Phillip Manning talked with two local principals about how the changes will work.
The new sixth-grade program at Su-Valley will include students from Talkeetna, Trapper Creek, and Willow Elementary Schools. One thing that all of the administrators I spoke to made very clear is that parents and students will be the ones to decide whether they stay at their respective elementary school or go to the junior and senior high.
Lisa Shelby is the Principal at Talkeetna Elementary. She says the move will bring the Upper Valley’s schools closer in form to the rest of the district.
“This is a way to allow more options for that sixth-grade class. We are the only three elementary schools in the district that still have sixth-grade at an elementary level. The rest of the district has sixth-grade at a middle school level.”
Rob Picou, Executive Director at the Mat-Su Borough School District’s Office of Instruction, says the idea to add sixth-grade at Su-Valley began with Upper Valley parents.
“It started with a conversation in Trapper Creek. The parents up there just need more experience for their children–their sixth-grade students. So, we started talking about creating a program at Su-Valley for those kids and opening up the choice to Talkeetna [and Willow] as well if that’s something that parents would choose for their children.”
Su-Valley Principal Jason Mabry says his school was potentially in line to lose a faculty member before the addition of the sixth-grade class was made. Now, he says the school will end up with one additional teacher.
“We’ve been staffed to a level where we’re going to keep the position we were going to lose, and an additional position is being added to support the sixth-graders coming in. So, from our perspective, we’re going to be well staffed to accommodate–if all the sixth-graders come, we’ll be in good shape to accommodate them. If there’s a split, that will work just fine, also.”
Principals Mabry and Shelby are working on their respective sixth-grade curricula. Both say they want to make sure that students receive the information they need before moving on to seventh-grade. They believe that the students’ level of development will likely play a major role in the decision of where to go, as Lisa Shelby explains.
“One of the biggest pieces and choices will probably be not around academics, or even the programs themselves, but developmental.” She says parents will likely ask themselves questions like, “Where does my sixth-grader belong, developmentally? This elementary building where they can be the oldest, and it’s more innocent and simpler, versus moving into a [junior/senior] high where they’ll have to be a little more mature.”
Academics can play a role in some cases as well. Jason Mabry says advanced students could have opportunities to take more challenging courses earlier, which could lead to more opportunities later in school.
“As a small school, you have to have critical mass to make classes happen. So, if you want to have an AP literature class, that’s great, but you have to have enough numbers to make that happen so that someone else in the schedule doesn’t have a huge class.” Mabry believes having sixth-graders in the building could help create that critical mass. He says, “…That should give us that critical mass over the next few years to start building more of an AP option for our kids as they start getting into the higher grade levels.”
Regardless of whether a student opts in to the Su-Valley program, Principals Shelby and Mabry say the goal is to prepare future sixth-grade classes for the rest of their academic careers.
“A student that chooses to stay in sixth-grade at Talkeetna Elementary, I have no doubt that they’re going to get a great education, there. At the same time, if they come to Su-Valley, I feel like they’re also going to get a great education.”
Many of the details are still in the works. Principals Mabry and Shelby say that there will be an opportunity for students and parents to come to a public meeting where those details, and the answers to many questions, will be available. No date has been chosen for that meeting as of yet.
Lisa Shelby says she understands many of the questions parents may ask. After all, her own son will be going into the sixth-grade next year. She says she and her family haven’t decided whether that will be at Talkeetna Elementary or Su-Valley.