Like other elementary school principals, Kimberly Odom heard the stories from middle school staff members – how incoming sixth-graders seemed unprepared for the transition to middle school.
She heard about students forgetting textbooks, not making class changes in time, and forgetting to finish assignments.
“I figured that some of the onus is on the elementary schools,” says Odom, principal at River Gate Elementary in southwest Mecklenburg County.
So Odom and her staff have done something about it. They’ve created River Gate Academy for fifth-graders, and the program is more than a name.
Students change classes and are responsible for bringing the right textbooks and assignments to class. They are required to be on time. And they learn how character development weaves into the whole process.
“It’s not just enough to talk about building organization skills,” fifth-grade teacher Whitney Godfrey says.
“And it’s also making us better teachers,” fellow fifth-grade instructor Casey Thomas adds.
Odom said “an unusual mix of kids” last year convinced her to suggest the change to her staff. She proposed turning River Gate’s fifth grade into a version of middle school.
“They ran with the idea,” Odom says of the teachers.
Modeled after Atlanta program
Staff members spent a day in Atlanta, visiting the Ron Clark Academy, which has been praised for its work in preparing students for middle school.
In addition to helping students, the academy concept also boosted teaching, staff members say.
“It was an adjustment at first, but I can see the benefits now,” says Marjean Howerton, adding that she has been able to specialize this year in teaching math, rather than being an educational jack of all trades like most elementary school teachers.
“With this system, if the class doesn’t go the way you want, you can adjust in the next class,” Cassandra Gettis adds.
There are no student lockers at River Gate Elementary, so cubbies are used instead. The students are disciplined with silent lunches if they forget to bring the right books to class.
Fifth-grader Alexandria Chandler, 10, says she and other students were forced to make changes.
“Taking responsibility is much more important now,” she says.
“I was nervous because it is so different than what we did before,” adds Christian Um, 10. “But it will help us next year.”
Gettis says her students “seem prepared, ready for making the move.”
‘You have to think about others’
Odom says she also wanted team-building and public service to be part of the fifth-grade makeover at River Gate. In late September, fifth-graders went to the U.S. National Whitewater Center, where they participated in activities designed to help them work together.
They also are participating in a number of community service activities.
“You have to think about others,” Alexandria Chandler says. “You can’t just think about yourself.”
“And sometimes you have to work with people you don’t want to work with,” 10-year-old Makayla Goodman adds.
Odom says it will be next August before she knows if the program will accomplish its mission.
“It’s a work in progress,” she says. “We’re still learning that we have a lot of work ahead of us. But we’re committed to this. It will help our students succeed in middle school and far beyond.”
Lyttle: 704-358-6107; Twitter: @slyttle
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