Boston Superintendent Tommy Chang, grappling with a sharp enrollment decline in the middle grades, is floating the idea of creating a system of elementary schools that end at grade 6 and high schools that start at grade 7, a move that could radically alter the fabric of most schools across the city.
Chang and his team have been talking about the idea with school principals since this summer and have begun soliciting proposals from individual schools.
The shift could result in reshuffling thousands of seats in the seventh and eighth grades.
Chang said the new configurations could boost the quality of education for seventh- and eighth-graders by concentrating support services in fewer schools.
“We want to gauge interest to see if this is a viable plan,” Chang said. “Right now, it’s just an inquiry.”
Chang is heading into potentially volatile territory, said Lisa Gonsalves, chair of the curriculum and instruction department at the University of Massachusetts Boston.
“It’s like opening a Pandora’s box,” said Gonsalves, who served on a student assignment task force in 2004 that recommended a further expansion of Boston K-8s. “All these other issues come up.”
The idea being considered would try to streamline a school system with more than 20 grade configurations into a system of schools that is predominantly K-6 and 7-12.
In many instances, K-8 schools would become K-6s, while elementary schools, which now end in fifth grade, would add a sixth grade. High schools, meanwhile would add seventh and eighth graders to their mix. It remains unclear what would happen in the middle schools. They could expand to include higher grades but could also become K-6 schools
The city’s three exam schools, which begin at grade 7, would be unaffected.
Any change would represent a radical departure for a school system that has spent the last two decades converting elementary and middle schools into K-8s.
Expanding the number of K-8s had been a key strategy to keep middle-class families in the city and to stem the departure of other families to charter schools.
When Thomas Payzant arrived in Boston as superintendent in 1995, the system had only four K-8s, but as he and his successors launched more the number grew to 32.
Initially, the school system maintained enrollment numbers in the middle grades, but the numbers began to plunge as independently run charter schools launched their own expansions, aggressively targeting the middle grades.
In just the last 10 years, charter schools have added nearly 2,000 seats in grades 6, 7, and 8, according to a Globe analysis of state enrollment figures. During that same time, middle-grade enrollment in the city’s school system has dropped by about the same number.
Now, students in the city school system are spread so thin that many middle schools have a fraction of the students they once educated, and many K-8s, even popular ones like the Hurley and Mission Hill, are struggling to fill their seats, raising concerns about possible school closings.
Michael O’Neill, School Committee chairman, said that if Boston moves toward K-6 and 7-12 schools, it should still preserve some K-8s.
“It’s not an all-or-nothing approach,” O’Neill said. “We have to have a range of schools to meet parents’ needs.”
Chang’s possible changes to grade configurations would be part of a long-term master facilities plan that is expected to call for the construction of new schools and the renovation or shuttering of others.
The first preliminary reports — community survey results, demographic projections, and educational vision — are expected to be presented to the School Committee on Oct. 5. It is unclear if grade configurations will be part of the discussions that night.
For some parents, a system of K-6 and 7-12 schools could make sense because it would align better with Boston Latin School and the two other exam schools, easing transition anxieties for families with students assigned to a K-5 elementary school. Nearly a quarter of all the school system’s seventh- and eighth-graders attend the three exam schools.
“Everyone knows if you are in a K-5 you are in trouble for the sixth grade,” said Laureen Wood, whose daughter and son attend Manning Elementary School in Jamaica Plain, and who has been fretting about what will happen to her son when he becomes a sixth-grader, she said. “It’s stressing me out. He’s only 8.”
But other parents, whose children may not be bound for the elite exam schools, may balk at the idea of sending seventh- and eighth-graders to one of the city’s academically struggling high schools that are challenged by discipline problems and low graduation rates.
And the mere notion of eliminating any K-8s after fighting hard to get them might irk many parents.
In recent years, a series of studies have suggested that K-8s give urban students an academic edge by eliminating the middle-school transition, although other research highlights the benefits of middle schools.
Earlier this month, a team of researchers from Syracuse University and New York University found that students attending K-8s in the middle grades in New York City had higher academic achievement and fewer instances of bullying and fighting than their peers at the city’s middle schools.
The researchers chalked up the findings to students moving up to “top dog” status in their cozy K-8 schools, rather than becoming the “bottom dogs” at an unfamiliar middle school.
Chang said he worries about the ability of K-8s to provide as robust an academic experience as those in exam schools, noting that some K-8s have just three teachers spread across both the seventh and eighth grades.
Through the years, the school system has toyed with the idea of changing the exam school grades so they mesh better with the rest of the system. But any suggestion of changing exam schools, steeped with tradition, can cause a revolt.
If Boston pushes ahead with the new grade configurations, it would join the company of many regional school systems across the state that have similar grade spans.
Boston would also be following somewhat in the footsteps of Cambridge, which had strongly embraced K-8s but discontinued all but one of them a few years ago, reverting back to elementary and middle schools.
The move generated heated debate among parents, but Cambridge officials felt the K-8s were not delivering strong academic results and were marred by uneven instruction.
“Is the experience better for students?” said Patty Nolan, a Cambridge School Committee member. “It’s better for some, but not for others.”
James Vaznis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @globevaznis.