Tuesday, August 21, 2001

Middle-school kids face critical leap

Orientations aim to ease transition

By Lori Hayes
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Jacob McGuire starts middle school in eight days. He's excited but scared about what he faces at Norwood Middle School. Big classes with students he has never met. Lockers with combinations to memorize. The end of recess.

Sixth-graders entering Newport Middle School have a watermelon-eating contest.
(Patrick Reddy photo)
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        “I think I'm ready,” he said. “Mom says to just have the right attitude about everything.”

        The 12-year-old sixth-grader knows it's a big year. But for Jacob and thousands of other incoming middle school students across the Tristate, this year will mark the most critical leap they'll make in their academic careers.

        Setting the foundation for high school and beyond, middle school marks a point where academics are tougher, peer pressure mounts and students are often ex posed for the first time to drugs, alcohol and sex.

        The transition from elementary to middle school — whether it's in sixth or seventh grade — represents more than going to a larger school with new faces. It's make-or-break time, said Jack Berckemeyer, director of member and affiliate services for the Columbus-based National Middle School Association.

        “For middle-school kids, you'll have everything from cooties to making out on the couch to actually having sex,” Mr. Berckemeyer said. “There are so many degrees from sixth to eighth grade.”

  • Teach your child how to open a locker. Lockers are often cited as one of the scariest things about middle school.
  • Go to the new building with your child before school starts and walk the child's schedule with him or her.
  • Teach your children to manage a backpack so they don't carry their belongings with them all day.
  • Show your children how to use homework assignment books as a daytimer to keep up with all of their activities.
  • Encourage your child to try new things and get involved in extracurricular activities.
  Source: National Middle School Association
        At the same time, adolescents are often in a slump when it comes to academic motivation and performance, according to the American Psychological Association. While some excel, others will begin a path to failure, becoming schools' first dropout casualties.

        “It's kids' last best chance,” Mr. Berckemeyer said. “This is an opportunity to get down all the basics, understand concepts and apply them to real life before moving up (to high schools).”

        From one-day orientations to two-week summer camps, middle schools around the Tristate are recognizing the need to help students bridge those troublesome middle-school years.

        Change abounds as students move from a small nurturing elementary school to a larger middle school, where they're expected to be more independent and responsible.

        “That's kind of a rude awakening for some of these kids,” said Deb Robison, Family and Children First coordinator for Norwood Middle. “What happens is kind of a downward spiral, even for kids who are generally good students.”

        To address that, Norwood added a transition program last year to its five-week summer school for incoming sixth-graders. In addition to reading and math, students learned how to open lockers, navigate the lunchroom and handle bullies.

        Norwood tracked students who had participated in the transition program. After the first quarter, they had better attendance, better grades and fewer discipline problems than students who didn't attend the program, Ms. Robison said.

        On the heels of such success, Norwood added two more two-week transition programs this summer.

        The transition program offers as much comfort for parents as students, Ms. Robison said. Jacob's dad, Ed McGuire, said he's a bit nervous too. But the summer program his son attended has eased some of his anxiety.

        “Anything to help them prepare is vital,” Mr. McGuire said. “I'm sure it'll go a whole lot better for him now.”

        The National Middle School Association encourages schools to hold similar orientation programs and welcoming activities for new students, relying on older students as mentors, Mr. Berckemeyer said.

        “It's like an adult who changes jobs,” he said. “You're going from a place where you were comfortable, you knew all the people, to a new setting, new surroundings and new personalities. Imagine that for someone who's 11 or 12.”

        In a 1998 study, researchers at the University of Michigan found that:

        • On average, students' grades drop dramatically in the first year of middle school compared to their elementary school grades.

        • Children become less motivated in school and less confident of their abilities after moving to junior high.

        • Middle schools are more controlling, less cognitively challenging and focus more on competition among students than elementary schools.

        The abruptness of other transitions during schooling — preschool to elementary school or middle to high school — is not at the same magnitude as the leap into middle school because of the age of the students, said Carol Midgley, a research scientist with the University of Michigan.

        More schools today are easing that transition by shifting to a middle school concept from the popular junior highs of the 1980s, Ms. Midgley said.

        While most middle schools add grade six to the junior high's seventh and eighth grades, the difference between the two is not the grade configuration but the learning environment.

        Middle schools typically emphasize school community, teaming students with a stable peer group and set of teachers. They focus as much on the physical and emotional changes of the adolescent as the academics.

        “We're not just in the business of academics,” said David Upchurch, principal of Rapid Run Middle School in Delhi Township. “Academic performance is directly related to smooth growth in all the other areas — emotional, physical, psychological. You've got to take care of their personal needs before you take care of their academic needs.”

        Rapid Run starts working with its new students before they leave their elementary schools. Each spring, middle school counselors visit the elementary schools' fifth-graders to get them registered for class and talk about extracurricular programs.

        Then in May, all the fifth-graders come to the middle school for an orientation and building tour. In August, the district hosts middle school camps for incoming students as an opportunity to get to know their classmates and get more comfortable at the school.

        “They're coming to a whole new world,” Mr. Upchurch said. “Our expectation is that they will take care of themselves more. For a lot of them, it's tough.”

        For Debbie and Jim Kleemeier, the scariest thing for their daughter, Kelly, a sixth-grader this fall at Rapid Run, is the unknown.

        “You're a child when you leave elementary school, and you're expected to be an adult when you reach the middle school,” Mrs. Kleemeier said.

        But after seeing two older children through the same thing, the Kleemeiers spend a lot of time talking to Kelly about how to handle various situations and who to talk to if a problem arises.

        “Communication is critical in these years because if they don't talk to you, they're going to talk to someone,” Mrs. Kleemeier said.

        Bill Lawson has also been talking to his son about the extra responsibility of middle school. Jon-Paul, 11, who attended A.D. Owens Elementary, will be a sixth-grader at Newport Middle School.

        In late July, Jon-Paul attended the school's Wildcat Camp, a new one-day orientation for sixth-graders. Students met their teachers, toured the building and practiced opening their lockers.

        1 “It's definitely a crucial time,” said Newport Principal Chuck Faust. “Sometimes kids check out in seventh or eighth grade. They're just here. They're going through major emotional and physical changes. At the same time, we're under the gun to perform academically.”


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