By Chris Collins
Some eighth-graders already attend classes at Baker High School as a way of getting a head start on high school and to jumpstart their college careers.
That makes good sense educationally and financially, said Baker School District Superintendent Walt Wegener, and it's part of the governor's plan to reform education in Oregon.
Wegener estimates that students who earn an associate degree along with a high school diploma can save their families as much as $50,000 in college expenses.
That goal is spurred by students taking some high school classes as eighth-graders.
But the district has "never, ever intended" to send all eighth-graders to the high school, Wegener said.
Changes are being considered because of the governor's mandate that all school districts offer full-day kindergarten beginning in 2015.
Three kindergarten teachers currently provide half-day morning and afternoon sessions in a wing of Baker High School.
All-day kindergarten already is in place at Haines and Keating. This year's enrollment at the one-teacher Keating School totals 16 students, including five kindergartners.
One possible scenario calls for moving kindergarten classrooms back to Brooklyn Primary, requiring third-graders to transfer to South Baker Intermediate and sixth-graders to move to the middle school.
"That would stuff the middle school to the brim," Wegener said.
Logistically, it would free up classroom space at BMS if as few as 30 students, with their parents' permission, would choose to take a few high school classes each day, he said.
"It would be totally a family choice," Wegener said. "The district won't assign an eighth-grader to the high school."
Sending middle school students to the high school for advanced instruction is not a new concept. This year, three students travel to BHS for math classes and two are taking a language arts class, said Mindi Vaughan, middle school principal.
And while Vaughan is eager to receive sixth-graders, who she believes are ready to join the middle school campus, she'd just as soon keep most of her eighth-graders nearby as well.
"I think there's a time kids need to be at the middle school," Vaughan said. "I think there's a reason for it. Eighth-graders need time here and we really need time to prepare them for high school."
There's room to house the sixth-graders on the first floor of the Helen M. Stack Building and to move all seventh- and eighth-grade classes to the second floor, Vaughan said. Modular buildings perhaps could be used to house elective classes that all levels could participate in, she added.
The middle school has worked hard to improve its reputation, Vaughan said, pointing to reports from parents of seventh-graders who seem happy with the school's programs.
Vaughan praises the work of the school's Leadership classes, in which two-thirds of the student body participate, for helping improve the school climate.
Teacher Samantha Sullivan emphasizes traits of empathy and understanding, and students are encouraged to look out for one another.
"Bullying is not as much of an issue as it has been in the past," Vaughan said.
But Wegener sees allowing eighth-graders to seek high school credits, as required by law, as a common-sense solution to encourage accelerated learning and provide a more rigorous curriculum for students.
Still, he says he appreciates the concerns expressed about student safety, including a letter written by Baker County Circuit Court Judge Greg Baxter, District Attorney Matt Shirtcliff and Bob Moon, a Baker County defense attorney. The three are among those who think eighth-graders should not be integrated with older students.
From a legal standpoint, they are especially concerned about the possibility of mixing 13-year-olds with students who are 17 and older. The older students could face felony sexual abuse charges and mandatory prison terms if they were to become sexually involved with a 13-year-old.
But, Wegener points out, we allow young people to do things that could lead them to harm every day, such as riding skateboards and bicycles or driving vehicles. But in each case, the youngsters first receive training and are taught to consider the consequences of their actions.
He thinks the same could be done regarding the issue of proper conduct between eighth-graders and high school students.
Wegener believes that by addressing the issue, as Baxter, Shirtcliff and Moon did in a letter to the Baker School Board and to the editors of Baker City's two newspapers, the community is already a safer place for young people.
But Shirtcliff isn't convinced that that's enough.
"I don't think having eighth-graders at the high school is a good thing," he says.
In reviewing the sexual abuse crimes his office handled in 2012, Shirtcliff said six of the nine were committed by young men ages 18 to 22 who were in a "consensual" sexual relationship with girls who were 15 or 16.
In Oregon, 18 is the legal age to consent to sexual contact.
Adding eighth-graders to the mix would bring in an additional complicating factor, Shirtcliff, Baxter and Moon contended in their letter.
If the victim is 13 or younger and the defendant is more than three years older, the crime could be elevated to first-degree sexual abuse or second-degree rape, sodomy or unlawful sexual penetration, four crimes that carry mandatory minimum sentences.
"One or two of those and that's a big deal," Shirtcliff says. "There's much more at risk."
Shirtcliff says he doesn't automatically send young people (usually boys) convicted of these types of crimes to prison, but it depends on the circumstances, and the expectations of the victim (and parents) at sentencing.
"As the age of the girl drops, her ability to be a consensual partner drops in the parents' eyes," he said.
"This could have a major impact on a senior in high school and a major impact on a young girl - regardless of the outcome," Shirtcliff said.
He added that he believes the public needs more information before any decisions are made by the school district.
And Wegener agrees.
To that end, two more public meetings of the task force organized to consider the issues are scheduled this month.
The first is set for 4:30 p.m. Tuesday at the District Office, 2090 Fourth St. The group will begin narrowing the discussion from general concepts down to one or two models to be recommended.
The second meeting will begin at 4:30 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 21. The agenda will include discussion and development of minority reports, if necessary, Wegener said.
In addition to striving to make the best use of building space, the district must also prepare students to meet the governor's 40-40-20 goal. It calls for a 100 percent graduation rate by 2025 with 40 percent of graduates going on to earn associate degrees, 40 percent earning bachelor's degrees or more advanced education and 20 percent being ready to enter the workforce.
Wegener says to achieve that goal, districts must work to accelerate the learning of juniors and seniors.
"We're trying to set up a situation where families are deeply involved in the education of their students and the students are rigorously involved in a pre-apprentice program or in earning college credits," he said.