Sierra Sands discusses sixth-grade academy

Rebecca Neipp

News Review Staff Writer

Sierra Sands discusses  sixth-grade academySierra Sands Unified School District is in the beginning stages of gathering information from the public regarding the establishment of a sixth-grade academy, potentially made possible through a Department of Defense educational grant.

At press time the SSUSD Board of Directors was hosting a workshop to outline opportunities and address concerns. According to Superintendent Ernie Bell, who fielded News Review questions before the meeting, the board would not be taking action for at least a month.

“We are going to be gathering information from our stakeholders over the next month, and we plan to present the board with options at the November meeting,” he said. “At that point they could make a decision, or they could prompt us to gather more data.”

Some $70 million in DOD grants and matching funds facilitated the completion of a brand-new campus for Murray Middle School and renovation of Burroughs High School campus this fall. Bell has noted in past discussions that keeping the status quo for the Murray student population was a grant requirement, but that district staff had been analyzing how to balance access, resources and needs for the middle-school grades since Sierra Sands learned about the opportunity to build a new school.

Last spring, the district learned about the new grant opportunity through DOD.

“Sixth grade was identified as a grade level where changes in how we meet the academic and social-emotional needs of students would have a significant positive impact,” Bell wrote in an e-mail distributed to families of SSUSD students on Tuesday.

“The proposed delivery of this change is through science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics.”

In keeping with a nationwide push to enhance student preparation in science, technology, engineering and mathematics careers, Sierra Sands has offered a multitude of courses at middle- and high-school levels as part of Project Lead the Way. BHS was also the recipient of grants to build a $3-million state-of-the-art building to house career technical education.

Among the concerns circulating through the public was an alleged attempt to reduce music classes to an extracurricular activity.

“This is a rumor,” said Bell, noting that the ‘A’ in STEAM is a modification of the more common STEM focus that encourages inclusion of the arts. “Our community has a history of outstanding visual and performing arts programs.”

Investment in the arts is not only an ongoing commitment of the district, said Bell, but also a requirement of the DOD grant.

“All the evidence supports how critical it is to include the arts in education.” Bell said that even when a loss of state funding prompted schools across California to reduce or close visual and performing arts programs, SSUSD was fighting to keep those programs.

“No decisions have been made about anything,” said Bell.

“One of the things we have to acknowledge as educators is that we have no idea what jobs are going to be available in 10 years. Project-based learning, like we are looking at, helps our children develop critical thinking as well as social and emotional well-being.”

Bell said that the public will have additional opportunities to voice concerns and ask questions.

“Even though we are hoping to get some movement going soon, we also know how important it is to take the time to plan and consider everything before moving ahead.”

Story First Published: 2017-10-20