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Friday, Feb 15 2013 05:35 PM

Norris sixth graders to be moved during construction

BY COURTENAY EDELHART Californian staff writer cedelhart@bakersfield.com

The Norris School District in northwest Bakersfield is keeping next year's sixth-graders on elementary school campuses to accommodate a multi-year construction and renovation project.

The students will stay on elementary school campuses even after the project is completed, said Superintendent Steve Shelton. Sixth-graders currently are taught at Norris Middle School along with seventh- and eighth-graders.

The district had to abandon its practice of having multiple teachers provide instruction to the same sixth-grade class a few years ago due to conflicts with state credentialing requirements, so there really isn't much point in keeping them on campus with older students, anyway, Shelton said.

But he stressed that the district's culture of tailoring instruction to the unique needs of children in that age group will remain.

"Middle school is not so much a grade level as it is a philosophy that really focuses on meeting adolescent needs in not so much of a high school atmosphere," Shelton said. "We'll never move away from being Norris Middle School, whether it's six through eight or seven through eight."

The sixth-graders are to stay on elementary school campuses in the 2013-14 school year because there's more room for them there while the middle school is getting a makeover.

Proceeds from the Measure B general obligation bond issue that voters approved in June will fund upgrades at schools throughout Norris. The district is authorized to borrow up to $149 million to fund the expansion and improvement of classrooms and facilities and update science labs, libraries and technology.

Middle school Principal Jonathan Boles said he'll miss the presence of sixth-graders, as well as the 15 sixth-grade teachers who are moving, but it's for the best.

"They really are elementary school kids," Boles said. "I know they'll be very well served there."

The construction work is to be done in phases. The first authorization is for $16 million, which will pay for renovations at Olive Drive Elementary School and Norris Middle School, as well as the construction of shade structures at all four of the district's elementary schools.

The Norris Middle School campus was constructed piecemeal as the population in northwest Bakersfield grew. At one time the campus housed an elementary school, and some of its buildings date to the 1950s and '60s.

Plans call for a campus that is much better planned and more cohesive, with new classrooms around the hub of the library, Shelton said.

The design also calls for a new outdoor eating area and serving kitchen.

"The pilot light in that kitchen is about six inches high," Shelton said. "I think Columbus brought it over."

The first phase of the Norris Middle School overhaul should be finished in time for the 2015-16 school year. There will be three phases all together that could take up to 10 years to complete.

Olive Drive will be getting a new library and staff support facility for use in the 2014-15 school year.

Olive Drive fourth-grader Carlie Valentine, 9, is glad she'll have a little more time at her school.

"All my friends are here," she said.

Her mother, Kim Valentine, is grateful, too.

"They had the sixth-graders sort of self-contained in their own building anyway, so they might as well bring them back to the elementary school," she said.

Melissa Lephart, 38, is both a teacher and a parent, with two children ages 8 and 16. She said she never liked sixth-graders mingling with teenagers.

"I feel like sending them to middle school when they're still so young is sort of like feeding them to the wolves," Lephart said.

A portion of the Measure B construction will begin this school year, but the bulk of the work will start over the summer.

In late May, the district's administrative offices, which are on the middle school campus, will be moving into the first of several temporary modular buildings to be leased over roughly the next five years.

"The heavy construction work will be taking place inside a fenced-in area," Norris Principal Boles said. "Obviously we want to keep the kids safe."

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