Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Hot topic: K-5 vs. K-8

An SF K Files visitor asked me to start the following thread:
My son will be entering Kindergarten next year. As I'm doing research, I keep wondering, what are the pluses and minuses of choosing a K-8 over a K-5?


  1. Our child attends a small K-8.

    Obviously it is an advantage in that if you are happy with your school, you can stay put. No need to put your family back into the lottery again for Middle school. That gives families at K-8 schools some peace of mind.

    Having been with the same group since Kindergarten can give kids a sense of tight community. On the other hand, by Middle School it might also feel somewhat suffocating.

  2. I wouldn't make a deciding factor for a K choice. A lot is going to happen between now and middle school! I say this as a parent of a current student in middle school.

    I remember that middle school looked overwhelming when I was the parent of a 4-year-old. K-8 sounded so great, the thought of not going through the lottery process again, and also keeping my kid in a small school community.

    What I saw is that by the time the kids are in 5th grade, they are ready to leave the confines of the primary grades. They want more independence. They love touring the middle schools and they want to be part of the decision-making for choosing their next step. In some cases, continuing on to their K-8 school's middle school program will be that next step. But we have had many kids arrive at our middle school from the K-8's. Maybe the kid needed a change from the social scene, or just wanted more opportunities like orchestra or band. The interesting thing I've observed at the bigger schools is that there is a larger pool of potential friends, so it is possible to create a chess club niche in the library during lunch period without being the only geek in the class.

    I was going to mention the lottery, which hasn't been as stressful for most people at this level, maybe because sibling preference is less of a factor in middle school. But it sounds like the lottery may not used for middle school for your cohort? Or that is still up in the air. I'm personally not sure why they are including 6-8 in the draft plans for a new assignment system, as it seems to me the lottery has worked well on the middle school level, and the kids love having a choice. But that is all yet to be determined, I guess.

    I would still say, don't worry too much about it. Go for a K-8 if you like it for itself, but not because you are worried about the middle school experience. It'll work out. Most people we know have been pleasantly surprised at how happy our kids are and how the school is helping them make the transition from elementary to high school.

  3. Minus:
    - Often fewer co-curricular programs
    - Fewer children to socialize with
    - More responsibility for parents

    - Students know what is expected of them from grade to grade. Expectations in regard to homework, grades, behavior, etc. is consistent
    - Children grow up with one another and form a family. Fewer children means they need to work out problems with one another and move on from it.
    - The teachers know your child (and they know you too!)
    - No stressful transitions into a huge middle school (that's what high school is for!)

    I attended a K-8 and felt very secure within my school community. The faculty worked to see me succeed not only as a student, but as a person. I was held to higher standards. My son will be in the same environment come next school year!

  4. You really can't know now whether a smaller school would be suffocating or secure for your future middle-schooler. I know of three kids in my daughter's middle school class who transferred into their bigger school from smaller K-8s. Two were for social reasons and one was for the music opportunities as she wants to go to SOTA and she wanted full-year daily band class plus extracurricular music (jazz band). One of the kids who came in for social reasons is a friend of my daughter's and by her and her mom's account she is much, much happier.

    Glad to say I'm not seeing the horrible cliques I remember from my years middle school. Maybe I'm just not seeing it, but they seem more open-hearted and welcoming of difference. There are kids with various learning differences and several disabilities, including autism spectrum and physical disabilities. There's lots of racial and linguistic and religious diversity. And diverse family structures. The kids seem almost proud of that. The place looks like San Francisco, and they feel very San Franciscan. And again, there are so many kids, and so much diversity, and so many clubs and other activities, I think it possible for almost any kid to find a niche.

    Bottom line, make your choice based on schools you like. If you have to change later, you deal with it then. You just can't know ahead of time how your kid will grow and change. Or your other kids, if you have any coming along after.

  5. The upsiude of K thru 5 is that you're done in 6 years.

    The downside is that it's 3 years less than K thru 8.

  6. I have gone both ways. With my elder she was in a k-5 and is now in a big middles school. With my younger, he is in a k-8. I think the better option is the K-8. If it turns out your kid is the type who needs more electives like band or orchestra, then you can always move them. But a K-8 avoids the lottery and the impersonal attitude toward the kids at the big middle schools.

  7. K-8s tend to have more conformist cultures.

    That might be okay for some kids, but not others.

    One of the advantages of a larger middle school is that no matter how quirky or obscure your interests or passions might be, you can always find a peer group of others like you.

  8. This is a question of different strokes for different folks. You'll find proponents on both sides, and both are right.

  9. 4:50

    I agree. I've seen the quirkiest kids do well in the big public middle schools compared to smaller schools (private or public). I think that may be counter-intuitive, but I have seen it over and over.

  10. One thing other posters touched on is that K-8 middle school elective choices are *extremely* limited; for example, no opportunity for daily band or a second language. On the other hand, the K-8 environment is usually very safe, and the administration usually knows all the kids.

  11. My friend's son was a lonely outcast at their small, supposedly close-knit Pacifica K-8. After the fact, she thinks he would have done much better at my kids' big comprehensive SFUSD middle school. So this comment struck a chord: "I've seen the quirkiest kids do well in the big public middle schools compared to smaller schools."

    The boy was just different, and in a class with only 40 kids, there was no one he related to. In a class with 300 kids he would have had a lot more options, plus a much better chance to pursue his passion for music. At least that's what his mom now thinks.

  12. Like others in this thread have suggested, I wouldn't make K-5/K-8 a the sole deciding factor. I do think it's a downside of the parochial schools and certain independent privates: only one class per grade makes it hard to give a wide variety of electives. For the public K-8s, which are have larger grade cohorts, it may be less of an issue.

    We got into a public K-8, and will probably stay there. A nice feature is that they have a "big buddy" system, where they'll pair up a 6th grade with a kindergartener. I know my kindergartener will just *love* that.

  13. My daughters attend a k-5 and one element that I love, is that because the 5th graders aren't yet into or exposed to much middle schooler behavior or discussion. It really keeps the schools youthful and young. In our school, the 5th graders are paired as reading buddies with the kindergartners and both parties LOVE the experience.

    Middle school is a tough time for kids, no matter what the setting, but I truly appreciate that our school feels like an elementary school.

  14. Now that I have a 7th grader at a SFUSD middle school and a 5th grader entering it next year, I must share my enthusiasm for middle schools!

    My oldest is loving school with all the activities, arts and sports activities. Not one who had it easy in elementary school academically, he is doing better in school now than in K-5.

    Interestingly, his friends from 5th grade dispersed to mostly 3 different middle schools and all of them feel they have the perfect school for them (remember, kids start having their own feelings about school choices at this age and having them be part of the process really helps.)

    To be honest, I think I underestimated my son before he entered middle school and now am seeing what his true potential is. For my kids, I think they would really be stifled in a K-8.

    Unfortunately, there is really no way to know all this when your kid is 4-5 (or even 10!) But I'd encourage all parents to consider trusting and supporting your kids - they can really surprise you (in a good way!)

    That said, don't make the K-5 or K-8 a deal breaker. There is just no way to know. Look for a good elementary fit and things have a way of working themselves out.

  15. I do agree with the poster @ 9:31 about K-5 keeping the kids young, and my 5th grade son loves being a reading buddy and he is a true friend at the after school to a young kindergarten boy who has taken a shine to him; he patiently plays checkers and builds castles with for half an hour or so every day.

    But I can also truthfully say that counter to my worst expectations, my daughter and her friends are loving the middle school experience. The independence came along at just the right moment and they are relishing it.

  16. Out of curiosity, for those of you who have chosen K-5, what are your plans for 6th - 8th? The only middle school I have any familiarity with is Aptos and that would not work for us. How do the other public middle schools compare to Aptos? I've learned that many private scools expand their middle school classes to accomodate more students. Are these generally as competitive as K is for admission? At this point, we're limiting our selections to independent and public K-8s.

  17. The top three schools by test scores are AP Giannini, Presidio, and Aptos (which just surpassed Hoover, and barely, this year). All four, along with many of the K-8 schools, are above 800 on the API, some with more or less challenging demographics as it were. They all have the same basic curriculum, but differ in their arts and language offerings. All four have honors tracks.

    I know many happy families at Presidio, Hoover, Aptos, and James Lick. Don't know many at Marina or AP Giannini; we rejected them both as too far away and my kid thought the culture at AP felt conformist. Several of these schools, and comparisons between them, have been discussed over on the honors/no honors thread--James Lick does not offer honors in either its GE or SI program.

    On another note, Lisa Schiff, of Beyond Chron and PPS and formerly of McKinley, is sending her kids to Everett this year and has blogged about this on the PPS listserve.

  18. I've got a kid in 4th grade and am terrified of oncoming middle school. So I would vote for more K through 8's. I don't think the large middle schools work for any kid other than the super-prepared and super-smart children. All the other kids are ill-served by the big middle schools in SF. If the K through 8's were so bad, then you'd see large numbers of openings at 6th grade for them -- and I don't see that at all in the statistics.

  19. Based on the responses in this thread, we're obviously in the minority.

    We ONLY wanted K-8 and looked at both public and private. We ended up in private precisely because we didn't feel comfortable with any of the SF public middle schools. I think many people looking at SF elementary schools only look at K (and maybe 1st), but it's worth it to look at the larger picture.

    We also considered the public K-5 route, and then switching to private 6-8, but felt the investment in private K-8 was worth it to us.

  20. "I don't think the large middle schools work for any kid other than the super-prepared and super-smart children. All the other kids are ill-served by the big middle schools in SF."

    "We ONLY wanted K-8 and looked at both public and private. We ended up in private precisely because we didn't feel comfortable with any of the SF public middle schools."

    I'm the parent of a kid at Aptos MS, which is quite diverse in almost every way that you can imagine in SFUSD. My child is in honors classes, but has friends in regular classes, and I have friends with other children also in non-honors classes. These kids have been doing well in these classes. They may or may not go to Lowell, but they also may not want to. They are doing fine.

    I think it is obvious that most kids who who come from supported backgrounds (get enough to eat, have books in the home, parents pay attention) are going to do well, and that kids who have been excelling academically (not always the same as "super-smart") are also more likely to do well when they hit middle school. Almost a truism, right? And no school can solve the big problems of an unsupported home environment, a dangerous home neighborhood, or poverty. A school can only help. If the fancy private schools had to take the kids who come from these environments, I wonder how well they would do.

    However, I see Aptos doing its share, and really helping the kids of all levels. My kid loves and respects the grade-level counselor, who knows the kids' names and knows what to say in just the right mix of being the adult in a challenging situation but also treating the kids as if they can act like adults if they put their minds to it (R-E-S-P-E-C-T). I've seen kids with learning disabilities do well. I've seen kids with behavior problems turn around. All with the help of teachers who care and a good counselor.

    I know middle school looks very scary to elementary school parents, but we have found that Aptos (and I hear others too) does a remarkable job of taking kids from elementary and raising them up to the high school level by the time they leave. It looks like a jungle, but it is actually exactly the level of independence and stimulation that they need at this age.

    I'm agnostic on the K-5 versus K-8 decision, but I do wonder just how many public middle schools the poster at 8:01 actually toured, or looked at seriously by talking to parents, at the time that she/he made the decision to go to private elementary school in part because of the public middle schools! There are some excellent programs and teachers (God bless 'em, I couldn't do it) in our middle schools and also good community. We've had a great experience. My kid loves going to school and couldn't wait to go back in the fall (seriously). You never know what your kid will need by the time you get to 6th grade, but I certainly wouldn't rule out the public middle schools way, way back at the kindergarten stage.

  21. I feel that 11:42 am is starting the same debate that we've had on this website in the past. Let me frame this another way. For a certain percentage of students -- for your kid, large middle schools work great. For a percentage of students -- and this is key -- that is much larger than the available slots in the few K through 8's publics in the city, large middle schools don't work great. That's why we need to have more public K through 8public schools. It is as simple as that. My goodness, I just spoke to a parent friend with a kid in 5th grade who is the biggest supporter of public schools who just reluctantly switched her kid out of one of the best public K through 5's into a private K through 8. She told me with great distress that she did so very reluctantly because she couldn't see her kid fairing well in the large middle school environment. And she is not the only one. Again and again, the parents I know who are making the switch to private or moving to the suburbs are NOT doing so for K, but are doing so for middle school. And I think the endless postings of "don't worry your kid will do great in these large middle schools" just don't cut it for a large chunk of kids. And their parents know it. It is SFUSD that willfully turns a blind eye to this problem. And unfortunately SFUSD is enabled by the parents whose kids like large middle schools.

  22. 8:01 here. Our kids have just started 4th and K. Although we didn't tour Aptos, it is our neighborhood middle school - we're in Westwood Highlands. Based on our own observations, and conversations with friends and neighbors with older children, we felt comfortable that it was not a fit for our family when we first looked at schools for our 4th grader.

    My point for the original poster was to consider the advantages of K-8. From our perspective, if the environment continues to work for our kids, we can keep them in their K-8 without having to worry about a transition to middle school. On the other hand, we could easily move them to a traditional middle school if one or both of them would be better off in that environment. To us, it seemed less risky starting in a K-8 than starting in a K-5.

    My last point for the original poster is that, in our situation, we were also concerned about class size, at the elementary and middle school levels. I'm not sure if it still holds true, but at the time we were looking at schools Rooftop (our preferred public option) classes grew to 30 kids at 4th grade, if not earlier. Our daughter's 4th grade class has 21 students. Reasonable people can disagree as to whether or not this would make a difference for their children, but it made a difference for us.

    Good luck with your choices.

  23. I would never say that all kids are cut out for a larger 6-8 middle school, as opposed to K-8. What I took issue with was the statement that

    "I don't think the large middle schools work for any kid other than the super-prepared and super-smart children. All the other kids are ill-served by the big middle schools in SF."

    That's a very big statement ("all" non super kids are ill-served? Really?), and it's also not true.

    I too was once a scared parent looking ahead to middle school. Today, having toured a bunch, talked to many, many, many parents in that process, and now being part of a middle school community for several years as a parent, and having gotten to know lots of kids and parents and teachers in the community, my mind has been changed. Right, it's not for every kid, but it works for many more than I had imagined, including kids who are not super-smart or super-prepared.

    Our 6-8 school is in fact a large school with many niches that lots of kids fit into. Again, not for everyone, but far from ill-serving a large number of kids.

    Thanks for writing back, 8:01/6:58. When we were looking at Aptos, we heard a lot of horror stories from the fairly recent past (6 years ago or so). The school has changed very rapidly and has now surpassed Hoover in test scores, and this year I would bet that the number of applicants will surpass the number of available spots there. That was my point about judging what you want for middle school way back in kindergarten: the only thing you can really bet on is that things change. My advice is to base the kinder decision on whether you like the school for kinder and elementary, and let the later years play out.

    As for class size, I'm sure it's true that many private schools (not so much parochial) have smaller classes at that level. Private schools have a lot of things. And are unaffordable to most, so that answer doesn't really address the questions faced by most people looking for middle school.

    And yeah, it's true that while am not trying to attack anyone's individual decision, I do lament that so many SF families default to private school (over half of our white families, in fact)--mostly because I believe we would have stronger public schools if those with voice and vote in our system were sending their kids there. And so often these decisions seem to be based on a perception that the path is "less risky"--but what are your children at risk for? Most kids in the middle class or upper middle class demographic do so well. We just haven't experienced the reality that corresponds with that perception of risk, either socially or academically--and again, I am a middle school parent saying that.

  24. I think it's true that some kids will do better in a 6-8 school while others will do better in a K-8. Unfortunately, it's impossible to know which it will be when your child is four or five years old and you're considering schools for kindergarten.

    That's one reason I'm so glad we have choices in SF. If a school isn't a good fit for your child, you don't have to move to a different area as you might have to do in the 'burbs.

  25. To echo previous posters, independently minded children that do not need much crutch-support from their parents will thrive at large middle schools and often feel constrained in reaching their potential at smaller K-8 publics and privates.

    But it is hard to know which is which when you are trying to enroll your child in kindergarten.

    Good luck. If you do select a K-8 school, you can always switch later. I know a child in SFDS who couldn't wait to move to a large high school upon graduation.

  26. independently minded children that do not need much crutch-support from their parents

    That's a bizarre way to describe a parent-child relationship. I was an "independently minded" child at this age and am grateful that I was fortunate enough to avoid middle school.

    I know that other urban districts have expanded K-8 programs, and it's a shame that SFUSD hasn't done the same. We would have considered public school had there been feasible options for us. In the end, we decided on private K-8.

    While many posters lament that so many upper-middle class families abandon SF public schools, I wonder if this would occur as often if we had more public K-8 options. At our private school, the two reasons I hear most from other parents as to why they choose the school is class size and that it goes through 8th grade.

    I haven't followed SFUSD developments very closely, so I don't know if we've ever seriously considered grade span reforms.

  27. I haven't followed SFUSD developments very closely,

    A perfect example of why it is lamentable that so many middle-class and upper-middle-class families don't participate in the public schools. In an ideal world, private school families would still be involved in the public system, because it benefits all the children and all our futures, but the truth is that (with exceptions) their advocacy goes missing when they opt for private.

  28. Let me rephrase - "I haven't followed SFUSD developments ON THIS ISSUE very closely since choosing our oldest daughter's school five years ago."

    I thought this was a thread to discuss K-5 vs K-8. Had I known that this was just another "blame the private school parents" thread I would have refrained from participating.

  29. Ironically, children with special educational needs are the ones who would benefit most from private-school education...

    ...and yet they are largely excluded from the expensive private schools.

    Independent-minded children are itching to branch out into a larger world by the time they reach middle school. I know that this is difficult for those of you with little tots at home to understand. But it is true.

    Independent 13-year-olds thrive at large schools that offer the full range of sports, arts, and other clubs filled with students from diverse racial backgrounds AND economic classes (a world not available in the cloistered world of private school).

  30. Independent 13-year-olds thrive at large schools that offer the full range of sports, arts, and other clubs filled with students from diverse racial backgrounds AND economic classes (a world not available in the cloistered world of private school).

    Data, or opinion?

  31. Both. My two kids thrived at big middle schools.

    I know two private schoolers (one from SFDS, one Live Oak) who were absolutely bored with their peers after sitting in classes with the same 40 kids over nine years from kindergarten through eight grade.

    I have nothing against K-8 schools. They are often a better fit for shy children and children with special needs.

    My point is this: Don't disparage the large schools.

    Your 12-year-old son may be seething at this very moment because he is stuck in a little world in a little school.

    I meet so many parents with young children (under the age of 10) who are worried silly about what will happen to junior when he reaches the middle school years. He/she will often be mature enough to handle and actually enjoy and thrive in the rough-and-tumble of the real world.

    So don't close your eyes to this option.

  32. Congratulations! That's great news for you.

    I also know parents who have pulled their children out from large public middle schools and their children have "thrived" at smaller schools. And their children are neither shy or have special needs.

    Sometimes people justify their decisions based on what they can financially afford. We're not in that situation, so we're happy to explore all options.

  33. What I find troubling is that every time a parent speaks out in support of the large middle schools, they disparage families who may choose another option. The parents are "worried silly" and their chilren are too shy, too dependent and need too much crutch-support.

  34. Yes, please do explore all options even if you cannot afford them.

    Yes, please don't disparage other parents for their decisions because they differ from your own.

    And yes. Do consider large schools, especially if your child is especially independent minded.

  35. every time a parent speaks out in support of the large middle schools, they disparage families who may choose another option.

    Funny, I've seen it trending more the other way. I'm one who has written here that my child has thrived at a big middle school, and tried gently to suggest that you can't know when your kid is in preschool that your kid wouldn't also, especially with all the extracurricular offerings and niches that only a big school can provide. I have also said that it is not for every kid, and it is good we have K-8s. Many kids need to stretch their wings and some kids really do chafe in the smaller environment (or suffer with the cliques that can dominate a smaller environment), whereas other kids need the security of the smaller school. Developmentally, kids are all over the map at that age.

    Here's the kicker though, you really can't know which would better benefit your kid way back in preschool. I say, pick your K school based on which ones you like for elementary. Don't try to overthink your way six years down the road.

    However, I have not written disaparaging statements about shyness or crutches or anything else. I think different sizes of schools fit different kids. So it's not true that everyone who has defended the big middle schools has done this, because I at least, a big-middle-school defender (sounds like a superhero, doesn't it), haven't done it.

    What bothered me on this thread was the blanket statement that

    I don't think the large middle schools work for any kid other than the super-prepared and super-smart children. All the other kids are ill-served by the big middle schools in SF.

    Nuh-uh, not true. That is a common rumor that is in fact scaring parents--I've heard many say it--if your child is not a go-getter or brilliant, he or she will get lost at Hoover, Aptos, Presidio. Or that the big middle schools are chaotic and full of violence. There IS unnecesary fear out there. It is far more common to hear parents say this than to hear them say that a K-8 might not be the best option for everyone.

    Yes, yes, yes, each kid is different, and some kids would do better at a smaller school. I don't say otherwise. But nor should a parent pass by the bigger schools because of statements like the one I just quoted. At least take a look, and talk with other parents, and ideally, the kids who are already there.

    I've seen so many kids find themselves in an environment that is counter-intuitively cavernous-looking and seemingly the worst possible environment for him....the kid with dyslexia who developed a passion for jazz and the teacher took an interest in him and he now wants to go to SOTA. And on and on. The dorky kid, the girl who wants to do science....there is room for all, and the kids can usually find someone else, or several, who share that interest. And the cliques tend to get lost in the larger picture rather than dominate the social scene.

  36. "please do explore all options even if you cannot afford them."


    Well, if you're wealthy enough, you have many options including private, and lucky you. Does it have to be said again that most people in this town are not in that situation?

    I wouldn't encourage anyone to explore options they cannot afford. It is stressful to look for schools, the private applications process is the sux, and I've seen so many people either drive themselves crazy wanting something they can't get or overextend themselves to "afford" it--even though many of us are one job loss away from dropping off the middle class in this town.

    I think there is a perception among those who have six-figure salaries (especially if that is multiple six figues) that all things can be made possible, that we are all in similar situations really because we wear similar clothes and some of have us have similar college educations and we are part of the same social scene at the playground and whatnot, but there is a big difference between that salary level, which does allow for some discretionary spending, and the salaries that most, yes most, of us make, which is swallowed up by the basic cost of living here in San Francisco.

    I say that not because I want the six-figure lifestyle, which entails working long long hours as far as I can tell. I like going home at 5pm and leaving my job at my desk. It's more like a statement of reality. If you make a middle class income (200%-400% federal poverty level let's say, taking off from the health care debate, so let's say you make approx. $80,000/family of 4), then private school is out of reach except for very large scholarships, which are in short supply these days. Let's remember that median income in SF is actually less than that amount, and even more so for families with kids. It all gets bottom line fast when private school costs $25,000 including child care for one kid let alone two.

  37. As someone who's child just started a K-8, I'm a little ashamed to admit that I'm kind of creeped out by our 6-8th grade kids. Maybe I'll have a better opinion of them by the end of the year, but at this point they've come off as obnoxious, ill-behaved, and not particularly nurturing to the K kids that each has been assigned to "mentor." Frankly, I'd rather they just stay away from the little guys and go play Lord of the Flies in their own space.

    I assume many will disagree but, sincerely, it's my two cents...

  38. @1:48 thank you for your honest assessment. Please let us know which school this is because they vary greatly.