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As the Redwood City School District struggles to retain teachers, Roosevelt drops the school’s sixth grade

Parents were notified in the Spring that their children would need to choose a different campus to attend for the upcoming school year
Exterior view of headquarters of Redwood City School District in Redwood City, California

Would-be sixth graders at Roosevelt School returned to the classroom Wednesday, taking on not just the start of their middle school careers but an even bigger change: a new campus.

Earlier this year, increasingly dire staffing shortages forced administrators within the Redwood City School District to make the decision to close the school’s entire sixth grade.

After five teachers resigned from Roosevelt, leaving two of three six-grade positions vacant, Superintendent John Baker announced his decision to shutter the grade and redistribute the students to other schools.

“It's been a bit difficult this year, since there is a teacher shortage to begin with,” Baker told the Pulse, lamenting the loss of teachers throughout the district. “It's a problem throughout the United States, and especially here on the Peninsula, where it's expensive to live.”

Parents of the nearly 90 graduating fifth graders were notified in late April about a special meeting with Baker and the principals of Roosevelt, Kennedy and McKinley schools. During the Zoom call, parents learned about the closure of Roosevelt’s sixth grade—and that they had just weeks to decide where to send their children for the upcoming school year. 

“It came out of left field for everybody,” said Aravind Somanchi, a father of two Roosevelt students. “The ball dropped onto our plates with a couple of weeks to go, as the fifth grade was winding down.” 

Their options included enrolling at either Kennedy or McKinley, the RCSD’s two dedicated middle schools, or switching to private. In total, 73 students had to transfer as a result of the grade closure.

“We had to essentially talk to our kid, get her to see these two different campuses, try to educate ourselves and our kid as to the differences,” Somanchi said. “And we had to make a choice.”

Unprecedented teacher shortages

A combination of widespread teacher shortages and rising attrition rates throughout the pandemic pushed the district to a breaking point, according to Baker. In January, as they do every year, the district sent out a survey to teachers asking whether they intend to leave or return.

“COVID has been a real game-changer,” Baker said. “And this year, it was particularly eye-opening, especially at Roosevelt where the sixth grade teachers for whatever reason [are] leaving the area, not only the area, but the state.”

District-wide, almost 16% of the nearly 400 teachers resigned or retired at the end of last year. Student enrollment has also decreased in the past three years, down over 14% since 2019, according to the district. 

Though administrators have been actively trying to hire new staff since February, there simply haven’t been enough qualified candidates, according to Baker. Weeks turned into months, and he grew desperate. 

“We wanted to keep hope up that we were going to find the people that we needed,” he said. But spring break passed with no luck, and in May, he started to wonder: “What are we going to do if we don’t find anyone?”

Ultimately, he and Roosevelt Principal Tina Mercer scheduled a meeting with the parents of Roosevelt’s rising sixth graders to explain the situation and inform them of their options. Both Baker and Mercer felt that the parents took the news surprisingly well.

“I expected there to be some discontent, but they really understood the job situation,” Baker said.

With only weeks left in the school year, the district arranged tours of both Kennedy’s and McKinley’s campuses for the families in the following days. Mercer said it was particularly important to her to expedite the process as much as possible.

“I was not prepared to make our parents wait and agonize over it,” she said. “We wanted to give them that security, when they ended the school year, of knowing where their child was going to go.”

Somanchi, however, expressed frustration at the district’s handling of the situation. Parents were only informed about the May meeting through an email sent one day in advance, according to Somanchi, who said that the number of people in the call was significantly less than the student population.

Though he had sympathy for the school’s staffing shortage, he said the parents should have been warned about the situation much earlier.

“It was not by choice that they closed [sixth grade], but by the lack of choice. And we cannot blame anyone if they could not find quality replacements. Who can be blamed for that?” he said.

However, he added, “it would have been a much better experience for all the parties involved” if the administration had been more transparent and the parents “were included in this process, from the time that the school and the school district knew about it.” 

“Then we would have been informed and prepared,” he said.

A 'glitch in the system'

Baker said he wasn’t yet sure if the closure of Roosevelt’s sixth grade would continue into the following school year and what that might mean for the future of the school. But he said the district would take steps to recruit and hire more competitive candidates in the coming year, including, he hoped, increasing teacher salaries and looking into the possibility of building workforce housing.

Mercer, however, was adamant that the grade closure was temporary, calling it a “glitch in the system.” She said she intends to start recruiting new teachers soon in the hopes of welcoming sixth graders back to Roosevelt in the coming year. She also plans to have ongoing conversations with the community to decide what to do next.

“We’ll really talk about the impact on the families, we'll talk about what the needs of the families are, what they want moving forward—all while acknowledging that there is a genuine teacher shortage,” she said. “So what is it we want to do as a school?” 

For her part, she said, “I really enjoy having a K-8 here, and I hope that we continue to be a K-8.”

Mercer said she didn’t expect the sudden change of schools to be disruptive to the affected students. 

“I don't think the impact is going to be felt in sixth [grade] significantly,” she said. 

“Our kids are extremely resilient. If COVID taught us nothing else it was that—that our kids really have learned to thrive. I'm so impressed with our fifth graders; I think they handled this really well.”

Ultimately Somanchi and his wife elected to send their daughter Kinjal to Kennedy, where many of her friends also enrolled. Her first day of school was last Wednesday, Aug. 17. According to Somanchi, Kinjal “has transitioned pretty smoothly,” and is adapting well to the new middle school environment and class structure. 

As to whether she might return to Roosevelt for seventh grade next fall, however, Somanchi doubted it.

“It doesn’t make any sense for us,” he said. “It’s another change.”


Leah Worthington

About the Author: Leah Worthington

Leah, a Menlo Park native, joined the Redwood City Pulse in 2021. She covers everything from education and climate to housing and city government. Previously she worked as the online editor for California magazine in Berkeley and co-hosts a podcast.
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