Morro Bay and Los Osos sixth-graders off to middle school

Sixth-grade students in Los Osos and Morro Bay will attend middle school next year — not elementary school — after the San Luis Coastal board of trustees unanimously approved the move Tuesday night.

The action will incorporate a new program called STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math), which is intended to emphasize math and science curriculum, mimicking a similar emphasis across the nation to foster those subjects.

“It is time for us to act courageously for our students,” district Superintendent Eric Prater said to the board of trustees Tuesday night. “We need to begin. I believe it is a replicable model that will prove successful and will benefit the entire district in the future.”

About 135 students at Baywood and Monarch Grove elementary schools in Los Osos and at Del Mar Elementary in Morro Bay will now be required to attend sixth grade at Los Osos Middle School in the 2013-14 school year.

More than a dozen people spoke during public comment Tuesday night after months of grueling meetings on the proposal.

The move has been met with frustration and resistance by some parents who said they preferred for their children to have the additional year at the elementary school absent of added peer pressure and the potential for bullying and other concerns.

A handful of students spoke in support of the transition, while other students defended themselves against being stereotyped as a bad influence on younger students.

“I think we are ready and we are mature enough to do this,” said Alexa Ford, a fifth-grader at Del Mar Elementary.

Some parents voiced support for the program, saying the added benefits would mean more time in the classroom and access to additional resources such as robotics classes.

“It offers more options, more teaching time,” said Tom Moylan, a parent of a third-grader and a fifth-grader at Baywood Elementary. “It is going to be a tremendous benefit to the students.”

Moylan said at first he too was concerned about the potential social impacts of an earlier transition onto a middle school campus. However, after walking the middle school campus and meeting with the principal, Kyle Pruitt, those worries waned.

School district officials proposed the new program and the move to alleviate future overcrowding at two of the three elementary schools.

The middle school, which is fed students from Los Osos and Morro Bay elementary schools for seventh and eighth grades, has only 380 students enrolled but a capacity of 750.

The shift to a sixth-grade to eighth-grade campus will bring enrollment to about 500 students.

However, school administrators also say the STEAM program is rooted in the district’s strategic plan, which is intended to dramatically improve student test scores, increase the use of technology in classrooms and increase the number of students who qualify for the University of California and California State University systems. 

The district will spend $135,000 annually on the new program, which will include the use of a netbook or an iPad by each student. Prater said the district will look to partner with business groups and seek state and federal grants to help pay for the program.

The additional cost comes just as the school board was told it will need to cut more than $5 million from its budget in the next two years.

Several board members and parents expressed concerns about the district being able to guarantee funding for the new program in the future.

Prater said funding  would be a high priority.

“I am asking you to act on the stated strategic plan initiatives,” Prater said. “There are many things we do in addition to the strategic plan. This model is a critical feature to our future, and it needs to be a priority.”