BY PAUL LEIGHTON
---- — BEVERLY — Should a new middle school include fifth-graders, or should they remain in the elementary schools where they are now?
That was the question of the night at Hannah Elementary School, where school and city officials held the first of five forums to discuss the key issue surrounding the planning of a new middle school.
The panel presented a mostly positive picture of the grade five-through-eight concept, saying it would not only benefit fifth-graders but also free up space in the crowded elementary schools.
Briscoe Middle School Principal Matthew Poska said that when he and other members of a task force visited middle schools with the five-through-eight configuration, “We heard many positive stories about what is occurring.”
The new school would replace Briscoe, the current grade six-through-eight middle school that was built in 1923. It would be built on the site of the former Memorial Middle School on Cabot Street and would be either an entirely new building or a renovation and expansion of the current Memorial building.
The cost has been estimated at $73 million, with the state picking up at least 52 percent of the cost. The target date to open is September 2017.
School officials said the new school presents an opportunity to explore the benefits of the five-through-eight model.
Poska said it would give fifth-graders a chance to take classes in computers and art; receive daily instruction in science and social studies; build extracurricular activities like band and chorus into their daily schedule; and take part in an expanded athletic program.
“Fifth-graders are beginning to mature physically and socially more, perhaps more than decades back,” said Erin Fitzpatrick, the school adjustment counselor at Ayers Ryal Side Elementary School. “Fifth-graders are outgrowing that elementary model.”
Moving fifth-graders would also have the domino effect of freeing up space in the elementary schools, allowing full-day kindergarten classes to stay in their home school instead of being shifted around due to lack of space.
Stacy Bucyk, the district’s early childhood and special education director, said there would also be more room for special education classes, some of which are being held in hallways and converted storage rooms.
Some parents expressed concerns about fifth-graders being in the same school as eighth-graders.
“I don’t want (my son) to grow up too fast because he is exposed to older kids,” said Cole Street resident John Taylor.
Officials said the school would be designed with grades five and six in a lower school and grades seven and eight in an upper school. Schedules would be arranged so that the younger and older students are not often together in common areas like hallways and the cafeteria.
School Committee member Kris Silverstein said one middle school principal told her that the five-through-eight model actually keeps all the students “younger” because of the influence of the fifth- and sixth-graders.
The School Committee will make the final decision on the grade configuration, with a vote scheduled for Feb. 26.
Whatever decision is made, Mayor Mike Cahill said city and school officials will work with parents over the next three years on the many details involved in planning a new school.
Cahill said it would cost the city about $3.9 million more to build a middle school with fifth-graders. But he said that would be “significantly less” than the cost of building additions onto elementary schools to relieve the space crunch.
About 40 people attended last night’s forum. The next one is scheduled for Feb. 6 at 7 p.m. at Ayers Ryal Side Elementary School.
Staff writer Paul Leighton can be reached at 978-338-2675 or email@example.com.