“One of the things that could be beneficial from it is that you would, in really dealing with only sixth grade, you zero in and you have a tendency to capture better what the strengths and weaknesses, the learning strengths and weaknesses, are of each child,” said Superintendent Joan Frazier.
Anniston Middle School has long been a weak link in the city’s educational chain, as far as test scores go.
Although scores have been on the rise throughout the system, the exit scores in reading and math at the middle school have been lower than those at all the other schools in the system every year since at least 2007.
The board members discussed this seemingly lost ground during the middle school years after board member Bill Robison broached the idea of a sixth-grade academy based on the model of the high school’s ninth-grade academy.
“You’ve got a very similar situation as far as sixth-graders compared to ninth-graders,” Robison said. “They’re going from a situation where they are the big guy on the block so to speak — you know as far as age, materially and so on — to the junior on the block and … that takes a little acclimating to get used to, in my opinion.”
Raising the bar
Robison attended the ninth-grade academy’s honor ceremony last year and was impressed by the students’ enthusiasm and pride at their accomplishments.
“They were genuinely proud of themselves, happy about what they did, proud of their classmates,” he said. “I’ve got high hopes for less discipline problems and higher scores, a sense of commitment to academics that’s going on. I got that all out of one ceremony. I really did.”
The former Anniston mayor believes the students will carry that enthusiasm for learning throughout their high school career, and that therefore the academy model can give sixth-graders the same enthusiasm and motivation.
The sixth-grade academy is not unheard of. There are several scattered throughout Georgia and in other states. Marietta Sixth Grade Academy in Georgia has been in operation since the 2002-03 school year, said Karin Greeson, school improvement specialist at the academy. The school, like Anniston Middle, is a Title I school with a diverse population and a large percentage of economically disadvantaged students.
“(The Sixth Grade Academy) helps our kids to make those transitions here in a safe and smaller environment, and then whenever they go to seventh and eighth grade, they feel more prepared, more organized,” Greeson said. “Then at that point, all they’re having to transition to is the new building, not the whole concept of middle school at the same time.”
There are a number of changes as kids move from the elementary school to the middle school. Some are small changes like learning to use lockers. Other changes require more organization from the students. For instance, the students move from a classroom environment where they stay with the same classmates and the same teachers all day to having a different teacher and different classmates in every subject. They suddenly go from having one or two teachers with one set of expectations to several different teachers, each with his or her own set of expectations, she said.
Less time spent in the presence of any one teacher means that any problem a student has in making the transition could be harder to detect.
An academy environment has dedicated teachers for the transitioning class. They all work together to create an environment which allows them to become more familiar with the students and identify little problems that might otherwise go unnoticed, Greeson said.
“This provides us with a chance to be able to make sure all of our students are just supported and nurtured throughout the school day,” she said.
It seems to be working, she said. Every year since the academy has opened, the annual scores have improved.
According to the Georgia Department of Education, in 2006-07, 89 percent of the sixth-graders met or exceeded state standards in reading. In 2009-10, 94 percent of sixth-graders met or exceeded the state standards in reading. Similarly, in math standards the sixth-graders went from 66 percent meeting or exceeding in 2006-07 to 82 percent last year.
Making the grade
Those improvements seem to have staying power. The eighth-graders at the school system’s middle school have shown similar gains. In 2006-07, 84 percent of eighth-graders met or exceeded state reading standards, and 86 percent met or exceed state math standards. Two years later in 2008-09, 96 percent met or exceeded in reading, and 90 percent met or exceeded in math.
Anniston created its ninth-grade academy last year hoping to improve behavior and to increase the graduation rate. The high school uses a similar model of dedicated teachers for the ninth-graders, extra supports for the students and separation from the older students while they acclimate to the more demanding environment of high school.
“The ninth-grade academy gives the students an opportunity to form a connection with their ninth-grade teachers and to address their particular needs in their transition process,” Anniston High principal Sherron Jinadu said in a written statement. “The teachers get an opportunity to collaborate and work together to benefit the students.”
Anniston has seen some success with the academy. According to numbers provided by the school, freshman referrals to the office for behavior issues dropped dramatically from 1,056 in 2008-09 to 614 in 2009-10. The number of students retained in their freshman homerooms also dropped from 59 in 2008-09 to 31 in 2009-10.
The school also is adding a freshman transition class hoping to further support the students in dealing with the changes from middle school to high school.
Introducing a sixth-grade academy to Anniston is still in the discussion stage among Board of Education members. And while Superintendent Frazier hasn’t done intensive research on the concept, she believes it has enough merit to at least explore the idea.
Both she and Robison believe the project wouldn’t cost the system a lot of money for facility changes.
“In the case of the present middle school, we wouldn’t have to do very much (structural changing),” Frazier said. “It would be more of a teaching delivery of service.”
But for her to get behind the program, it would have to include some of the enrichment opportunities the ninth-grade program has offered, such as the transitional class and educational trips and speakers.
“It would have to contain not only remedial work but enrichment work and really the development of proficient reading skills,” Frazier said. “From that point of reference, yes, it could potentially take a little money, and that would be with personnel.”