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New middle schools mean new opportunities for Spokane Public Schools sixth-graders who would have stayed in elementary

Sept. 12, 2022 Updated Fri., Sept. 16, 2022 at 7:48 p.m.

Flett Middle School is photographed on Wednesday, Aug. 24, 2022, in Spokane, Wash. With four new middle schools now open on Spokane's North Side, Spokane Public Schools is moving forward with plans to move sixth-graders from the elementary schools to middle schools.   (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)
Flett Middle School is photographed on Wednesday, Aug. 24, 2022, in Spokane, Wash. With four new middle schools now open on Spokane's North Side, Spokane Public Schools is moving forward with plans to move sixth-graders from the elementary schools to middle schools.  (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)
By Jim Allen For The Spokesman-Review

As they waited last week for the opening of Spokane’s new Denny Yasuhara Middle School, two incoming sixth-graders shared thoughts that ran the gamut.

“It’s pretty big,” said JoceLynn Palmanteer.

A few feet away sat Gordon Branham, who looked forward to playing the trumpet in band class.

“And next year I get to cut wood with a saw,” Branham said. “I’m excited.”

As Spokane Public Schools settles in for its first full week of school, the district also is making a major change: moving sixth-graders from elementary to middle schools.

The groundwork, literally and figuratively, has been laid since 2018, when voters approved a $495 million capital bond to help build six new middle school buildings.

With all four North Side campuses now online, that process has begun. For students, the expected benefits include more access to electives, state-of-the-art facilities and a sense of belonging.

School board president Mike Wiser emphasized the last point during last week’s ribbon-cutting at Yasuhara.

Recalling his two years as a student at Sacajawea Middle School, Wiser likened it to a “whirlwind.”

“It was a bit disorienting, so I was excited when our community came together and said, ‘Let’s do this,’ ” said Wiser, who said he hoped the new three-year model will offer “more time for students to get to know each other, and for teachers to build relationships.”

According to most educators, that’s been happening since the bond was passed. New principals have assembled staffs and collaborated with architects, teachers and students in designing schools that are more inclusive.

The process won’t be complete until next year, when the new Sacajawea and Peperzak middle schools go online on the South Hill. However, students at older buildings such as Chase and Garry middle schools won’t have the same architectural benefits.

Nationally, about three-quarters of sixth-graders are educated in a middle school. However, experts are divided on which model is best; some believe success depends on the child as much as the environment.

Objections to the 6-8 middle-school model include fears that sixth-graders are at an impressionable point in their lives and more easily influenced by their peers – in this case, other kids as old as 14.

And in addition to moving to a larger setting, most sixth-graders are attending a school that’s less likely to be within walking distance from their homes.

Also, a Duke University study concluded in 2007 that test scores of sixth-graders in elementary schools were higher than their counterparts in middle schools. Researchers considered the possibility that elementary-level sixth-graders might behave and perform better because they are under less stress than their middle school peers.

Spokane educators are confident that they’ve done their best to make the new buildings feel more intimate for their youngest students.

A key feature in all six buildings is the “neighborhood” concept, which minimizes transition time and keeps students in those neighborhoods for the core classes of language arts, social studies, math and science.

The neighborhoods also serve to limit younger students’ conduct with older students.

Morgan Macaluso, a language arts teacher at Glover Middle School, recalls the launch conferences with families the week before school.

“Parents were so relieved when they saw their next class is within arm’s reach,” Macaluso said. “That made them feel a little safer.”

For the teachers, the neighborhood concept streamlines collaboration, especially for students who may be struggling.

Because the sixth and final period is set aside for electives, “we have the capabilities as teachers to pull them from electives and close up any learning gaps,” Macaluso said.

Collaboration is boosted, Macaluso claims, by the introduction this year of late-start Mondays. Though an inconvenience for some families, the late start allows teachers to “get on the same page” and set the tone for the week.

The old model – early release on selected Fridays – was of limited value because teachers were worn out by the end of the week, Macaluso said.

At Shaw Middle School in northeast Spokane, building design also plays a big part in making the school “feel smaller,” according to Principal Jon Swett.

While the seventh- and eighth-grade neighborhoods are on the upper floor, the sixth-graders are on the main floor, close to electives and the commons.

“It’s really helped our sixth-graders navigate the school,” said Swett, who opened the new Shaw building a year ago to the two upper grades.

Now it holds all three grades, but according to Swett, the building’s design and the neighborhood concept make it feel “hardly full at all.”

At Glover, first-year Principal Mike Stark is bullish about the new model, mainly because he’s seen it work during his years as a middle school principal in Cheney.

Sixth-graders also felt safe in the middle-school setting, Stark said.

“The interesting thing is we would just survey our kids and ask, ‘do you feel safe and connected?’ And year after year, the sixth-graders said they felt the safest and most connected,” Stark said.

Academically, the offerings will be broadened in middle school.

Students will be exposed to art, music and other career/technical aspects. Some of that curricula isn’t offered at the elementary school level.

“We’re not in a hurry for students to grow up,” said Greg Forsyth, director of capital projects for the district. “We just want to make sure they have the best experience that they can have.”

At the four new North Side middle schools, that experience also includes a small playground.

Sixth-graders who are still struggling to find their comfort zone should reach out to their school, said Swett, the principal at Shaw.

“If you hear something that doesn’t make sense, or if you just want to check in, just give us a call – that’s my best advice for parents right now,” Swett said.

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