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Virginia Elementary School Offers Middle School Classes

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Jefferson Houston School principal Rice-Harris chats with a parent.
Michael Pope
Jefferson Houston School principal Rice-Harris chats with a parent.

One Virginia elementary school is now offering middle school classes, and it's a trend that administrators say eases overcrowding and creates a sense of community.

Jefferson-Houston School in Alexandria was originally built in 1970 as an elementary school of the future -- a giant pod without walls where teachers could collaborate with each other. These days, walls have been constructed and the pod design is considered outdated. Now the school is trying another tactic -- adding middle school grades. Principal Rosalyn Rice-Harris says it's a way for the older students to serve as mentors.

"Our younger students look to them for direction," she says. "How to walk in the hallways, how to behave in the cafeteria, how to make good choices."

For Rice-Harris, it's more than a new experiment. It's personal. The school she attended in Connecticut offered kindergarten through eighth grade.

"One drawback I saw as a student, was that I knew the same 25 kids for my entire school career," says Rice-Harris. "And when we all went to high school together, we all went to the same small part of high school."

But the setup comes with benefits. One is that it solves a capacity crunch, allowing administrators to fill unused classroom space at elementary schools. Another is that it allows opportunities that are unavailable in a traditional setting; older children mentoring younger ones, and even creating musical performances and puppet shows for them.

"It gives the younger children someone to look up to," says Elizabeth Starkey, whose granddaughter is in kindergarten at the school. "I think it makes the older children more careful around the little children."

School CEO Steve Wilkins says the existing facility will be demolished soon and a new school will be constructed, specifically to house kindergarten through 8th grade.

"We're really thinking about building a building that lasts for 50 to 60 years, 70 years," says Wilkins. "So I would put the question to you: What does a school in 2060 look like?"

Alexandria school administrators say it will look something like Jefferson-Houston. D.C. and Prince George's County in Maryland have already created models that have kindergarten through 8th grade. And Alexandria plans on modifying two of its existing elementary schools to add middle school grades in the near future.

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