Three years ago, Caroline Turner walked through the doors of Cedar Ridge Middle School a bit scared.
Like hundreds of students citywide, she was making the transition from elementary to middle school, an experience some experts say can be permanently life-altering if not handled properly.
Turner, now 14 and an eighth-grader, was perhaps a little more prepared than most students because two of her sisters had been through the process.
“They told me to reach out and talk to others,” the former Leon Sheffield student said. “I was still worried a little, but the school helped me a lot.”
National studies on middle school grade configurations have brought different conclusions, including whether to house sixth-graders in a separate wing of a school building. Decatur City Schools has three middle schools — Brookhaven, Oak Park and Cedar Ridge — with about 750 total students in grades six through eight.
Sixth-graders may have the toughest adjustment, their social structures changing from elementary leaders to standing at the end of the line in middle school. A Harvard University study linked school dropout rates to sixth-grade transition.
One reason sixth grade is tough in Alabama is because it’s a grade in which extracurricular activities are limited. That is in part because the Alabama High School Athletic Association does not recognize interscholastic athletics until seventh grade.
Students cannot try out for the football team until the spring, so youth leagues and outside programs host almost all after-school recreation for sixth-graders.
Such avenues, from sports leagues to scouting to martial arts, can be limiting for low-income students. Decatur schools’ poverty rate is 62 percent.
While it hasn’t gained momentum nationally, some school systems are opting for sixth-grade-only school sites, or academies. Decatur Superintendent of Education Ed Nichols said some in the community have mentioned the academy concept to him.
Nichols, in his first year as superintendent, realizes middle-school success will be critical to improving the school system’s graduation rate, which is below the state average.
He hopes a school system facilities study — expected to be completed by early December — will offer evidence on the direction Decatur should move its schools.
While Nichols said he is not seeking sixth-grade academies for Decatur at this time, he is keeping the option open “down the road.”
The sixth-grade academy concept has gained momentum in Georgia, primarily because of the success of Marietta Sixth Grade Academy. A little more than 20 years ago, the Marietta City School system looked at the “best way to house students” and was “trying to reinvent” how it delivered academic instruction in middle schools, associate superintendent Dayton Hibbs said.
The system looked at data and held community meetings.
“We decided that the transition for sixth-graders would be better if they were at one site,” Hibbs said.
During the first six to seven years, graduation rates in the Marietta system increased from 60 to 80 percent, he said.
“This initiative to capture the middle-school grades worked, but it was a collaborative effort between the entire system,” Hibbs said.
Thompson Sixth Grade Center in Alabaster is one of a few self-contained sixth-grade schools in Alabama. The school started four years ago to relieve crowding in that section of Shelby County.
But school officials soon realized that having sixth-graders in their own building eliminated a lot of peer pressure and made the transition to secondary school better, Principal Wesley Hester said.
“The anxiety level went down, and our students felt less intimidation,” he said.
Hester said teachers also benefited.
“It allowed them to focus on one age group and put them in a situation to provide students more time and attention,” he said.
While it made no reference to facility configuration, a study the Decatur City Schools Foundation commissioned last year said the system has to change its middle-school programs to improve its 68-percent graduation rate, which is below the state average.
Joe Adams of the Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama in Birmingham conducted the study. He said middle school grades are important because “this is when students are leaving the fairytale and talking about being engineers and accountants.”
Following a 2001 study of 450,000 Florida students, Harvard researchers concluded that sixth grade has a greater link to the dropout rate even than ninth grade — when students enter high school as freshmen.
Martin West, an assistant education professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education who co-authored the study, reported that students entering middle school experienced “a large drop on student achievement.”
The drop causes students “to give up on education,” especially if they are in a setting in which teachers don’t have the time to get to know them “at a time when the students need it most,” the report states.
The study also found moving from the oldest students in elementary school to the youngest in middle school “is harmful” to some.
Oak Park Middle Principal Ashley McIntyre said Decatur is aware of the challenges sixth-graders face and has an aggressive plan to help them.
The first step comes in the spring when fifth-graders are invited to tour middle schools, he said.
“We point out areas to them where they will be going to class,” McIntyre said.
In early May, the schools invite parents to meet teachers and take school tours. The final step is an orientation for incoming sixth-graders, when they are assigned lockers, receive class schedules and are allowed to walk to their future classrooms.
“We know this is a monumental step because students are going from having one teacher to seven,” McIntyre said.
About four years ago, Cedar Ridge assistant Principal Tommy Davis started organizing what the school calls a curriculum fair. Principal Beth Weinbaum said booths were set up in the gymnasium for every extracurricular activity and club, and parents were invited.
“We want them to be familiar with what is available for their kids at Cedar Ridge,” she said.
Emily Millwood, a sixth-grade science teacher at Oak Park, has lived the evolution of sixth-grade transition in Decatur.
When she started teaching 28 years ago, Decatur had two middle schools, and sixth-graders were confined to a pod with no lockers.
“Students rotated between classrooms, but that was it,” Millwood said. “It was similar to an elementary setting.”
Because of the amount of material students carry, it became evident that they needed lockers.
Millwood said the one thing that hasn’t changed is that moving from class to class is the toughest challenge, and having lockers is an issue because students sometime forget their lock combinations.
“It takes a couple of weeks, but all we want the students to do is get comfortable,” she said.
The transition also can be challenging for first-year teachers, especially if they are coming from an elementary setting.
That was Stephanie O’Hare’s experience when she started at Oak Park six years ago as a foreign language teacher.
“I did my student teaching at the elementary level, and none of my college classes talked about helping sixth-graders transition,” she said.
Her first day at Oak Park was “nothing like I thought it would be, but the other teachers helped me through it.”
Coming to Oak Park from high school also required a learning curve from McIntyre. He said you have to be more compassionate with sixth-graders.
“In the beginning, they need to know that you care more than they need academics,” he said.
Marietta (Ga.) Sixth Grade Academy is a stand-alone school designed to ease transition from the city’s seven elementary schools to its one large middle school. The separate facility for sixth-graders was established in response to concern that the transition from childhood to adolescence was difficult enough without the conversion that comes with middle school — multiple classrooms, locker combinations and the emerging social structure.
The school philosophy is that a single set of rules and developmental age-appropriate expectations enhances appropriate character emphasis and safety.
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