6th Grade Academy @ BCMS!
The halls at Brown County Middle School look a little different this year than the last two years. Completing his first year as principal at BCMS, Gavin Steele started asking the question, how can we make the middle school experience more welcoming for our 6th grade students? Steele started asking questions to teachers, parents, and most importantly students! What were the students sharing with us? What were they nervous about? What transitions could we improve upon? What concerns were parents sharing about the transition from the elementary school model to a much more junior high model? These were just a few of the questions that started deeper conversations that led the team to look at a much bigger change and design an academy built for, and focused specifically on, incoming 6th grade students. We knew what we wanted, we knew the amazing team that we formed, we knew it was time to do something big!
Upon the decision to explore the 6th grade academy idea, the first obstacle was scheduling. How do you run two schools within the confines of one building with limited staff and space? You get creative. It became obvious in order for this to be successful, teachers would need to have flexibility to teach more than one subject in some instances. Another priority of the academy planning team was to provide flexibility for differentiated instruction specifically in the areas of math and language arts. The goal was to create the opportunity for students to receive more instructional time ELA and Math. The current schedule for the 6th grade academy works in three 90 minute blocks where students receive their 90 minutes of math and language arts instruction and another block with 45 minutes of social studies and 45 minutes of science. 6th grade students are all able to receive science instruction in one of the beautiful science labs at the middle school.
Students mentioned the stress of navigating a schedule. So, the question was asked: How can we eliminate the stress of passing periods and lockers all day long, while still allowing the opportunity to learn how they work? Now, 6th grade students begin their day in a homeroom classroom and travel with the same cohort of students to each of their blocks. All 6th grade classroom transitions with the exception of 2, happen when 7th and 8th graders are in class. “We want sixth graders to learn how passing periods work and what it feels to have a little freedom to see friends without having to do it 6 times throughout the day.” States one 6th grade academy teacher. “We plan to add more ‘passing periods’ in the second semester to further prepare students for 7th and 8th grade.” Students do travel to an elective once a day where they see the rest of the school and are accountable for getting to their class on time.
The planning team also identified the need to have the 6th grade classes exist in a single hallway versus spread out throughout the building. This makes for quicker transitions and the ability to separate 6th grade students from the 7th and 8th grade hallways. This benefits everyone by keeping the hallways less congested throughout the building, throughout the day.
Due to the schedule, the sharing of common students, and the identified space for 6th grade students, the 6th grade teaching team has a common planning time to develop lesson plans and brainstorm ideas for how to better meet students’ needs. As a result of this time, the team has created a unified behavior plan to help students succeed–complete with consistent rewards and consequences; they have developed a parent communication newsletter, a method for keeping students organized has been created and implemented, and integrated, cross curricular projects are being discussed.
When the current 6th grade academy teachers were asked about their initial reaction to the idea of a 6th grade academy and learned what it could look like, one teacher replied that her first thought was, “Let’s do it! Let’s get a team together and start planning.” She said that she loved the idea. Another teacher responded that her curiosity was peaked and immediately felt inspired by the student-centered nature of the drafted plan.
One teacher said that some of the greatest impacts of the academy has been the ability to forge relationships with students in their homeroom cohorts. Another stated that students seem more confident now that they have begun school versus when they were signing up at registration. Middle school is often a tricky and scary transition, but with the way things are set up, students are learning how the building works with a team of students and teachers. They will be prepared for 7th grade. All the academy teachers stated just how helpful it is to have a team of educators with whom they can collaborate and share tasks. It really provides a needed support that benefits everyone involved. It is not rare to see the 6th grade team touching base in the hallway between classes, meeting during their planning period, or developing plans together before and after school. Students are in the hands of a team that is committed to providing them with consistently well-thought-out experiences in order to help them as they make their transition from elementary school to middle school and beyond.
“I really like that I’ve been able to make new friends from other elementary schools.” One student said after being asked about some of his favorite parts of being in the 6th grade academy. Others named that they like that they travel from class to class with the same people, one explaining that “it is sort of like a family.” Many students love having lockers in which to keep their belongings and that they are all in the same hallway near their classes. Naturally, students entering middle school said they are nervous about many things: Changing classes and getting there on time, opening lockers, and having friends. When asked if they were still nervous about these things now that school has begun, it was a resounding “no.” Students had time the first few weeks to practice opening lockers in empty hallways, they realized the transitions between classes were structured and guided for the beginning of the year, and they made new friends in class and as well as Happy Hollow camp the second week of school.
What are parents of current 6th grade students saying?
“I have to tell you, my child has not been one to enjoy school but he loves the 6th grade!”
“The 6th grade academy was our deciding factor in sending our child back to school. We were excited about the schedule that the 6th grade will be running this year.”
“My daughter loves having a “homeroom” teacher to connect with. It feels like a great balance between elementary and middle school.”
“The teacher’s took away so much of the stress that my older children had transitioning to the middle school, (junior high then). My son’s biggest fears were the lockers and making it to class on time. The teachers’ approach to the new school model took care of these. – We love it!”
Brown County Middle School’s team asked questions and heard the students, parents and team. Plans created, thrown out, drafted, redrafted and puzzled over. Questions continued to come to the surface. Change is not easy, but our students matter. Their learning, their concerns, their relationship with school matter! So, here we are, a school within a school. Brown County Middle School’s 6th grade academy team will continue to ask questions and rewrite the plan in order to best meet students’ needs.