Grants aid students’ leap to sixth grade

An education piece on middle school transition grants, published in The Florida Times-Union in November 2007. 

From complicated schedules to bigger schools, without forgetting those troublesome locker combinations, it’s not always easy being a sixth-grader.

Six middle schools in Duval County received about $10,000 each from The Community Foundation through the Making the Move: Transitions to Middle School grant. The money is to fund programs to prepare fifth-graders for the passage to middle school this year, five of them having had the grant last year. One of the schools that had the grant last year dropped out this year.

The schools have used the money in different ways. Darnell-Cookman Middle School, for one, incorporated Sean Covey’s The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Teens in its curriculum for sixth-graders. Kirby-Smith Middle School started a “Big Sibs” program, pairing volunteer seventh- and eighth-graders with incoming sixth-graders.

Some of the schools emphasize the role of parents during the child’s transition process.

Judy Sheklin, a guidance counselor at Southside Middle School, said she believed that the more parents are involved with the school, even before their child enters sixth grade, the more they would be comfortable helping their children and asking questions to the school staff.

In Southside Middle, the grant has gone to events such as an Internet safety speaker event, a family FCAT night and a multi-cultural fair. Some sixth-graders went to feeder elementary schools in the spring to meet fifth-graders, show them how to open locks, and sample schedules.

Fifth-graders also had many opportunities to visit Southside Middle before classes started.

“Many of them, when they came to school the first day, it was the fifth time they had been here because of all the events we had held,” Sheklin said.

“That was something that seemed to make the transition easier for students.”

“I think that was great for the incoming sixth-graders to be exposed to it [middle school] while in the fifth grade,” said Diane Taylor, mother of a sixth-grader at Southside Middle school.

The son in question, Deon, 12, said that although adjusting had been really hard, he had found the visits to be helpful.

After barely two years, schools say the program has made a difference. Lake Shore Middle School’s summer camp has become increasingly popular, according to the school principal, Iranetta Wright.

“This year, we had parents coming in and asking about the camp,” she said. “I think it’s a great opportunity for the students.”

But the programs do more than just spark parental curiosity. Wright said that all of the 80 or so children who attended the summer camp each year have great attendance, and about 90 percent have no disciplinary infractions.

Cheryl Riddick, the Community Foundation vice president of Grantmaking Services, said the programs have had notable repercussions on the students.

She remembered that during a meeting last year, the principal of Kirby-Smith Middle said the number of sixth-grader referrals had been halved in one year.

“She said ‘I’m going to attribute it to this work’ ” Riddick recalled.

“What we hope this will mean is that essentially, if you clear aside the issues, it will clear the decks and allow students to focus on their academics,” she added.

Riddick expressed hope that the grant would spark some meaningful change in Duval county schools.

“Was this just a nice thing to do?” she said. “No. We’re hoping that there will be lessons learned from what these schools have embarked upon.”


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