Sixth-graders in Monroe County could go from being the small fish in the big middle school pond to being the only fish in the pond.
If the school board there approves a plan to consolidate the system’s two middle schools Tuesday, it would mean the first school exclusively for sixth-graders in the midstate.
According to a plan presented to the Monroe County school board in December, all of the county’s seventh- and eighth-graders would go to school together at Banks Stephens Middle School, while sixth-graders would attend a separate school. Part of the system’s proposal that would have moved the Mary Persons Freshman Campus to Hubbard Middle School is now off the table, based on parent feedback.
Keeping the system’s sixth-graders together mirrors the idea behind the Mary Persons Freshman Campus, which separates ninth-graders from older students to ease their transition into high school, Superintendent Anthony Pack said.
The freshman campus, which opened in fall 2007, has helped boost retention rates and has meant a more focused learning environment, said Mary Persons High School Principal Jim Finch.
Officials want to see the same results if the proposal for sixth-graders is approved.
“At the sixth-grade level, it can ensure greater success for students at maturing, major transitional years as they’re going through puberty,” Pack said.
“They can grow and mature a little bit more before seventh grade.”
The plan, which could go into effect as soon as this fall, is projected to save $500,000 to $750,000 by cutting down on personnel, facilities and program costs to address slower-than-expected student growth.
Monroe’s proposed sixth-grade school would be the first in Middle Georgia. Around the state, Marietta city schools, Cobb and Tift counties, as well as Heritage Preparatory Academy, a state charter school, have already embraced the concept.
Monroe County parents such as Karen Leverett like the proposed middle school consolidation as a way to address budget shortfalls in tough economic times.
The setup could also help sixth-graders find their place among their peers more easily, she believes, such as schools Leverett attended in Florida’s Indian River County.
“Whether you go with a middle school or just sixth grade alone, it’s just a whole new world anyway,” she said.
The Marietta Sixth Grade Academy officially opened in 2002, but the Marietta school system had separated sixth-graders from other middle schoolers for about a decade before that.
During the mid-’90s, sixth-graders were moved to an empty elementary school to ease overcrowding at Marietta Middle, said Debra Pickett McCracken, the system’s assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction. Sixth-graders eventually got their own school after seventh- and eighth-graders moved to a different building.
“We were bringing students from eight elementary schools to a protected environment, and parents liked it,” McCracken said.
And there have been other benefits. The school has seen major achievement gains in the last few years. In 2006, 55 percent of students met science testing standards. By 2011, 82 percent were doing so. There have been gains of at least 15 percentage points in other subjects during the same span.
Some research, however, indicates that students may see a drop in performance while transitioning from school to school. Students in Florida who moved from elementary to middle schools, for example, tended to have more achievement declines than those who attended schools made up of kindergartners through eighth-graders, according to a recent Harvard University study.
McCracken said she monitors research related to the impact of school transition, and Marietta Sixth Grade Academy has measures in place to help address the issues.
When the school first opened, school leaders saw student declines between the fifth and sixth grades. In response, they now offer interventions such as after-school courses and a teacher advising program.
The school also has an orientation every year to help students get to know each other.
“It’s a whole different reality of how they need to plan their school day. They’re more independent,” system spokesman Thomas Algarin said. “All this stuff is very different from the elementary environment.”
Some parents such as Sean DeZoort haven’t made up their minds yet about whether starting a sixth-grade school would be a good idea.
Whatever the school board decides could affect his family, because his oldest daughter will be a sixth-grader next year.
The school system was a major reason that his family decided to live in Monroe County, and DeZoort wants to see that any change will be consistent with its track record of success.
“I think the jury is still out on that,” he said. “I’ll see what I can find out about it.”
To contact writer Andrea Castillo, call 744-4331.