As this uniquely challenging school year winds down, district leaders are reflecting on the many changes driven by health and safety protocols implemented this year because of the COVID-19 pandemic – and how these will figure into the year ahead.
With planning for next year underway, district leaders are carefully reviewing updated guidelines from the state health department, which includes a loosening of physical/social distancing requirements from six (6) feet to three (3) feet, and how that will impact in-person learning at both school buildings.
District leaders anticipate the need to continue to use all available spaces to accommodate additional grade level sections and adjustments to classroom locations to maintain a health and safe learning environment for students and staff and adhere to health department guidelines.
Moving the sixth-grade classrooms to Watervliet Jr.-Sr. High School (WJSHS) is one particularly positive change that will likely continue even beyond next year. This transition was made this year to accommodate the six-feet social distancing guidelines; however, based on feedback from grade 6 students and educators alike, district leaders are proposing this change become permanent.
Students share thoughts on middle school
By keeping the sixth grade at WJSHS, students will continue to be provided expanded learning experiences ‒ the introduction to foreign languages a year earlier, for example ‒ and participate in more extracurricular opportunities than are available at the elementary level.
In a survey of 104 sixth-grade students, most expressed positive feelings about remaining in what would officially be branded Watervliet Middle/High School next year with approval from the New York State Education Department.
- 78% said they were happy to be at the WJSHS.
- 62% are excited about the new classes they are taking (Home and Careers, Technology, etc.) and for the opportunity to meet new teachers.
- 53% said the WJSHS was “an exciting building” and made them feel “older and important.”
- 86% said they loved using Chromebooks to learn in school and at home.
- 100% of in-person students loved participating in Podlympics, March Madness and other classroom activities with their teachers.
Grade 6 students shared these thoughts about learning at WJSHS:
“It is a lot bigger than the elementary school and there are so many more things to do here and fun activities even with COVID.”
“We get to see where the classrooms are and meet our 7th grade teachers so we won’t be lost next year.”
The Middle School Approach
The middle school approach offers a more developmentally responsive program that will best serve students and provide a gradual and appropriate transition between the elementary and high school years. By adding grade 6 to WJSHS, students and families will have three full years to develop relationships with teachers and staff, including one school counselor and an assistant principal, all of which will provide consistency and predictability during a critical time for academic and social-emotional growth for students.
To ensure the support students need during this important time, the middle school approach at WJSHS will include the following:
- Collaboration among teachers to meet NYS Standards and teach academic and social-emotional skills appropriate for each grade level.
- Project-based learning to teach problem solving, critical thinking, time management and organization, which are essential skills for success in high school and college.
- Acknowledge student accomplishments, milestones, efforts, growth and achievements through various celebrations to ensure students remain motivated.
- Mentors to support students and families every step of the way.
- Open communication between teachers, school counselor, administrators and parents/guardians.
- Monthly newsletters and virtual parent/guardian information sessions with the assistant principal and the grades 6-8 counselor.
- Middle school will have its own classrooms, bathrooms and offices separate from the high school.
Teachers, staff on board with middle school
Watervliet educators have observed the many benefits of moving grade 6 to WJSHS this year, which includes collaboration between grades 6-7-8 teams to deliver more consistent instruction that will build skills and set expectations to create a seamless transition as students progress toward high school. Here is what grade 6 educators had to say in support of its implementation:
“Having grade 6 at WJSHS has provided students with familiarity with the building, administration, counselors, peers, and expectations that they would otherwise have not experienced. I love the idea of continuing to integrate grade 6 as middle school students! Getting the chance to work with the 7th and 8th grade teachers will provide opportunities to better prepare our students for success in high school classes and to understand expectations.” — Nikki LaBoissiere, grade 6 teacher
“I think that having 6th grade at WJSHS has been a positive experience. It has given them an extra year to prepare for high school, which is beneficial. This year, we taught our students how to use Google and eSchool to track their assignments and grades. Not only was this helpful for virtual learning, but it also helps to teach them about responsibilities and expectations to be more successful learners.” — Brenda Zawistowski, grade 6 teaching assistant
“Among the many benefits of sixth grade being at WJSHS, students are able to familiarize themselves with the staff as well as the building. For teachers, it has given us the ability to work with other middle level teachers to better understand the skills our students will need in future grades to be successful. Being able to work as a 6th, 7th and 8th grade team will help us align our skills and curriculum to best support the growth of our students.” — Lauryn Lloyd, grade 6 teacher
“Having 6th grade join us has been amazing! Knowing that I will get to work with these students for three full years is exciting! Our goal is to use this extra year to build middle school skills within a comfortable and welcoming classroom environment. In addition, allowing the 6th grade team to work with the 7th grade team fosters an alignment of skills and curriculum built to help transition students. I am excited at the thought of continuing this journey with incoming 6th grade students!” — Chelsie Clickner, school counselor
Developmentally Appropriate Practices for Middle School Students
During adolescence, students often struggle with the rapid changes they are experiencing, which is why it is important that middle schools provide the appropriate supports and encouragement to meet their unique needs.
Top learning and human development experts have identified a number of educational practices that support the accelerated social, emotional, and cognitive growth that middle-grades students experience during this time. Watervliet educators will continue to prioritize these best practices, which include the following:
- Small Learning Communities
“Small middle schools (300 or less) experience lower dropout rates and increased levels of motivation and learning success”
- Safe and Nurturing School Climate
“Provide students with a shelter from the storm, so to speak, to enable them to focus on learning and become successful students”
- Personal Adult Relationships (Mentors)
Providing a student with one teacher who serves as an advisor, mentor, counselor, or guide can be instrumental for some kids to help them feel a sense of safety, confidence, and purpose in their learning”
- Health and Wellness Focus
“By not shying away from sensitive subjects that are critical to the lives of young adolescents, middle school educators can show that they are really tuned in to the lives of their students, creating open and honest conversations to help build critical skills for growth and development”
- Honoring Student Voice
“As young teens notice their deeper voices being listened to and recognized, they acquire confidence and a sense of selfhood that will stand them in good stead as they face the challenges of the future”
- Social and Emotional Support
“Good middle schools help students develop their emotional intelligence and their intrapersonal and interpersonal intelligence. They use cooperative learning as a key to fostering positive social relationships. They engage students in curriculum-related activities that serve to develop their social and emotional intelligences”
“I am confident that bringing the sixth grade into a middle school setting is in the best interests of our students both academically and socially-emotionally,” said Superintendent Dr. Lori Caplan. “Additionally, it will allow us to better utilize space at the elementary school anticipating a return to in-person learning next year, while at the same time it will provide significant academic benefits and increased extracurricular opportunities for sixth-grade students.”
A grade 5 parent/guardian night is planned tentatively for Wednesday, May 19. More information will be shared with families closer to the date. In the meantime, if you have any questions please contact Assistant Superintendent Don Stevens at 518-629-3456 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.