As both a reporter and a parent, I’ve sat through long debates on reconfiguring schools by grades, typically into something new called an “academy.” (There’s apparently a perception that dubbing a school an “academy” connotes a more serious approach to education.). Ninth grade academies. Fourth and fifth grade academies. And now sixth grade academies.
I have not seen persuasive data that any of these new configurations is a better model than what we now have. In fact, more convincing is the research that students lose ground in transition years, suggesting that we ought to minimize how many times kids move from one new school setting to another.
Research (Alspaugh 1999) has shown that students suffer achievement loss during each transition year. Studies also show that students in k-8 schools outperform peers in middle and junior highs, and the fewer transitions are considered a key factor. Students in the k-8 and k-12 schools, a configuration that remains common among private schools, also experience less stressful adolescent years. (Simmons and Blyth 1987).
With that said, here is what the AJC’s new education writer Jaime Sarrio wrote today about sixth grade academies:
Across Georgia, sixth-grade academies are still a rarity. State officials say there are three schools that serve only that grade level, one in Cobb, one in Marietta and one in Tifton. Some started as a way to deal with overcrowding. But over the years these academies have evolved into a means of easing the transition into middle school, and providing more individual attention to the maturing age group they serve.
Splitting up a school can be more costly — it means hiring another principal in addition to support staff such as office workers and janitors. Some experts also question the benefits it has on child development.
John Lounsbury, dean emeritus at Georgia College and State University’s college of education, is considered one of the pioneers of the middle school concept. He believes students can benefit from mixing with other ages. Lounsbury also said good middle school programs allow different grades to mix in exploratory classes or at lunch.
“I like to think good middle schools know how to use the diversity academically, socially and emotionally in positive ways,” he said. “By March or April, you’ve got kids who are really socially and emotionally, and in some cases mentally beyond the sixth grade. I don’t think it is the best way to guide the growth and development of young adolescents who are so different and who are very much in transition.”
But officials in Marietta say the academy is a selling point for parents who don’t like the idea of wide-eyed 11- and 12-year-olds running into mature eighth-graders who can range in age from 13 to 15.
The Marietta Sixth Grade Academy opened as an annex across the street from the overcrowded middle school in 1993. But by the time the district moved the middle school to a larger facility in 2002, they realized the model was working and decided to officially make the school its own entity.
A major focus at the school is helping students establish good study habits and organization skills to prepare for a larger course load. Students are taught how to arrange their backpack and they take surveys to help understand how they learn best, whether visually, audibly or through hands-on activities.
Test scores have increased over the last couple of years and the school continues to meet annual state academic requirements, said Principal Dayton Hibbs.
“I believe our test scores are a validation that this process helps, and it helps move middle grade education forward,” he said. “If you had a typical school of sixth, seventh and eighth grade, your focus is on trying to improve test scores at all the grade levels while at the same time trying to teach kids how to transition.”
–By Maureen Downey, AJC Get Schooled blog