Administrators, teacher discuss middle school transition

Both middle schools and McDowell High School saw changes during this year's transition to middle schools.

This was a year of transition for McDowell County Schools.

In August, sixth-graders started attending classes at the middle schools and ninth-graders started attending class permanently at McDowell High School.

As a way to review the ups and downs seen during the first year in the middle school setting, The McDowell News sat down with administrators and educators to hear about the 2014-15 school year.

A few hiccups

When school began in August, McDowell County Schools Superintendent Mark Garrett admits there were a few problems, especially with transportation.

“Early on the hiccups were traffic,” said Garrett. “We anticipated that, but until we could see it we couldn’t make adjustments.”

Garrett stated that bus routes also caused a few headaches.

“Getting folks to understand that all the bus routes were different was another challenge,” said Garrett. “Because of the reconfiguration, students may get off at the last stop instead of the second stop, even though they hadn’t moved and their bus driver hadn’t changed.”

During the first few weeks of school, The McDowell News received two calls from concerned parents and grandparents who were worried about the duration of their child’s bus ride, but both individuals called the paper back after a few days and said that routes had been corrected so that they were slightly shorter and safer.

In one instance, a student’s bus driver just needed to drive further up to the home. During the first few days of school, the student had been dropped off a couple hundred yards from where he lived on a road that had heavy traffic.

By the beginning of October, though, those issues were corrected and traffic flowed at a steady pace at both middle schools and McDowell High School. Bus routes were also adjusted to better suit the needs of students.

Expanding possibilities

At all three schools, administrators and educators seem to agree that the switch to a middle grade setting has helped provide students with more opportunities.

“I think educators are seeing the benefit of not having ninth-graders at the middle schools, but at the high school,” said Garrett. “Before, you were doing 25 percent of your high school career at another school. The academy model and having the ninth grade on the campus has really allowed us to get some kids hooked into some things.”

Some of those things include academic clubs at East McDowell Middle School, which come during the last portion of the day.

During that time, students have a chance to further explore hobbies like Science Olympiad or tabletop gaming.

East has always had clubs, but because of a longer school day this year, they were able to make them so that all students, no matter what kind of transportation they needed home, could participate.

“Another big plus about our new middle school concept is the fact that we can incorporate academic clubs and fun clubs,” said East educator Shelley Yates. “There’s really a club for everybody. There’s such a diversity of the clubs that help kids get excited about school.”

At the high-school level, ninth-graders have had the chance to explore Career and Technical Education courses they didn’t have access to before because of the grade levels location at the junior highs.

“Students have earlier access to CTE courses now,” said Early Childhood teacher Staci Shaw. “Before, they had to wait a year before taking an intro class. Now they can get that under their belt and build on that class for the rest of their high school career.”

A stronger sense of school spirit

Before the transition to middle schools, students at both East and West McDowell junior high didn’t have a common mascot to cheer for.

Seventh- and eighth-graders cheered for Trojans or Spartans and ninth-graders rooted for the Titans, even though they weren’t on the high school campus yet.

Since the transition, students at all three schools now root for their own teams and adopt their own mascots, which educators say has helped create a tighter, more unified school.

“The school feels more unified,” said East educator Lisa Atkinson. “When we had the ninth-graders, they were Titans. They were high schoolers. Now that we’re sixth through eighth grade, we’re all Trojans.”

To help students further transition into high school life, administrators at McDowell High held special events at the beginning of the year so students felt welcomed at their new school.

“Before school started we had a tailgating event for the new students and let them in to the first football game for free,” said Principal Natalie Gouge. “We felt like this was a good way to let students see some of the activities they can enjoy.”

A face, not just a number

One of the challenges that came with putting ninth-grade at the high school was adding additional students to a school that already had a large population.

The school will now hold student populations of around 1700-1800, making it one of the largest high schools west of Charlotte.

“The biggest challenge with us moving forward is how you make a really large high school not feel impersonal and overwhelming to the students as they come in,” said Garrett. “That’s one of the reasons for the ninth-grade academy.”

Making school more personal for students at the high school is on the school district’s agenda because kids who feel part of something are statistically more likely to graduate.

The school and school system plan to work constantly toward finding better ways to make students feel like they’re part of a school family.

At McDowell High School this year, ninth- and tenth-graders have been linked with older students through the LINK Crew program, which helps older students mentor and befriend lower classmen.

At the middle schools, the transition actually evened out student populations.

Before the transition, West had a larger student population. Now, both schools hold around 700 students, which East Principal Charles Gaffigan thinks gives students an even playing field

“West for quite a while was quite a bit bigger than East,” said Gaffigan. “Right now, they sit very close to one another in population. Regardless of where you go to middle school, you’re getting the same opportunities as the school across town, no matter which school across town that ends up being.”

Even populations along with shared elective staff have helped both middle schools give kids at East and West the same activities to enjoy.

“We’ve tried to expand our electives more this year,” said West Principal Donna Gardner. “We’re sharing teachers with East so that both schools have the same electives. We are working on bringing these kids as many exploration experiences, so that maybe they can narrow down their focus when they get to high school and maybe follow a path based on their interest.”

Becoming a part of things

Educators at both middle schools and the high school will admit that they thought the transition would be more difficult than it has been this year.

But, after the first few days, many of them agreed that new students at their schools blended well with those that had been there.

“I really expected to notice the ninth-graders here, but to be honest, they’ve blended in perfectly with my older kids,” said MHS English teacher Andy Ferguson. “The students have worked well together this year and a lot of our ninth-graders have stepped up and taken part in different activities. Some of the ninth-graders I taught this year brought home awards from the Montreat Writing Festival.”

At both East and West, educators believe the transition has helped normalize everyday events for their students.

“Bringing in the sixth grade changed the atmosphere of the school, where with ninth grade they tried to be a grade to themselves and do as much as they could with the high school,” said Gardner. “When sixth grade came in, we worked to blend it all in and become a total school. Having sixth grade here as a true middle school just feels right.”

Getting adjusted

For the most part, administrators and educators insist this school year has been a smooth one-- even with the transitions -- but there have been some things to get used to.

At East, testing was both simpler and more complicated because of the absence of ninth-grade teachers.

“The fact that the school is so unified now is wonderful 95 percent of the year,” said Gaffigan. “But, for the past week we’ve tested 700 kids. Before, I could use ninth-grade teachers to administer/proctor tests and hire a sub for their classroom and vice versa with seventh- and eighth-grade teachers. But now I can’t do that because everyone is testing.”

Both middle schools have also seen challenges with their band programs, since there are two years of first-year band programs because sixth- and seventh-graders both transitioned from the elementary schools this year.

“We have two years of first-year band students this year and next year we’ll have two years of second-year band students,” said Gardner. “Building those programs is going to take a couple years, but that’s all part of the process.

Unseen perks of transitioning

Administrators knew that there would be pros and cons to switching to the middle school setting, but a few things have come from the transition that weren’t exactly expected during the planning process.

One of those things is a new use for funds already set aside annually to transport ninth-graders from the junior highs to the high school.

Because ninth-graders are now at the high school, those same funds were used to help high school students take part in college courses.

“We kept that same line item that was already committed (to transporting ninth-graders to the high school) and now students who had transportation issues or are worried about transportation issues can take Career and College Promise Courses at McDowell Tech,” said Garrett. “We already ran the bus in the mornings and afternoons for early college students anyway, so we added a couple more runs so that students can ride the bus from MHS to McDowell Tech to take courses.”

The fact that not only students, but teachers were new to the school helped students and parents feel more at ease.

“We’ve got 16 new academic teachers,” said Gaffigan. “At the beginning of school, sixth-graders and their parents seemed to feel better about the transition because of this. It’s allowed teachers and students to become familiar with the school over the past year and that’s really helped them bond.”

With the new grade configurations, parents have also had a more organized way of meeting their child’s teacher.

“It seems like it’s been easier for parents to meet with teachers as a team,” said Gardner. “We have had positive reports from our elementary schools and from the parents we’ve spoke with regarding sixth-grade. The majority are glad this transition happened. With the first group, transitioning parents were nervous, but we hope that they’ve realized how great this is.”

Working toward the future

Superintendent Mark Garrett looks forward to continually working with principals and educators to make both middle schools and the high school great places for learning.

So far, there have been a lot of great and unexpected things come from the transition. He hopes that new ideas and ways of doing things will continue to blossom from the grade shift.

“Newer, fresher ideas came out of the transition,” said Garrett. “There’s an understanding that you don’t have to do the same thing that you’ve done since the 70s, 80s or 2000s, that all this can be an organic process. Different is not necessarily better or worse, it’s just different. The more choices we can provide the students the better off we will be.”

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