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Districtwide Revamping of Sixth Grade
This fall in the State College Area School District, it’s a first for sixth.
Sixth-graders at Mount Nittany and Park Forest middle schools now follow a daily schedule aligned with seventh and eighth grades that the district hopes will improve learning experiences. Previously, the sixth-grade schedule stood apart with fewer room changes to help the transition from elementary school — a longstanding model in need of an overhaul.
“There were many things that we felt were not being maximized for kids by having these two very different schedules,” Interim Assistant Superintendent of Secondary Education Christine Merritt says.
Interventions to provide academic and behavioral support were one issue. Specialists had a difficult time scheduling appointments when periods didn’t line up. Enrichment was another challenge. With differing schedules, it wasn’t easy for sixth-graders wishing to take accelerated classes.
In either case, an accommodation usually would cost students core English and math time. Under the former schedule, sixth-graders had double blocks of each subject, as opposed to single periods in seventh and eighth grades. Adding a thing to a sixth-grader’s day meant losing something else.
Moreover, the disparate schedules complicated matters for physical education, music and art teachers who spanned all three grades.
“It was time to have a conversation with the sixth-grade teachers,” Merritt says. “So we developed a representative group to do that, met multiple times and talked about what it would look like if we aligned the schedules.”
What emerged after much discussion and planning was a major revamping. Like their older counterparts, sixth-graders now have alternating A and B schedule days with six team core classes instead of four. In addition to English, math, social studies and science— all allocated equal time with the double blocks eliminated — students take an academic literacy course aimed at boosting reading skills for a full year and art and music for a half-year each.
Coincidentally, the schools also launched a new introduction to world languages — a delayed step stemming from a comprehensive middle level review a few years ago. No longer will students begin by sampling French, German and Spanish before focusing on one. Now, at the end of fifth grade, they will select a preference for the next year, giving them a stronger start for potentially further advancement later on.
In that context, the aligned schedules help because sixth-graders already with some fluency can enroll in a higher-level class more easily.
One casualty of all the changes, however, was the traditional family consumer sciences program. In its place, the district carved out time for a dedicated sixth-grade health class, hiring two half-time teachers for each school.
“That’s a really positive addition,” Merritt says. “There’s a lot of social and emotional things that kids are going through in sixth grade.”
Mount Nittany Principal Brian Ishler says the revised model places one less burden on students already grappling with entering adolescence.
“It’s one change when they come to middle school,” he says. “In the past, it would be a change coming into sixth and another going into seventh. So now, we’re having one transition.”
It’s a new day for the sixth-grade core subject teachers too. Currently, they concentrate on a single subject rather than juggle either math and science or English and social studies — a difficult switch for some.
But, in the end, everyone’s adjusting for the sake of better education.
“With the amount of time and thought put into this and the collaboration with the teacher group, I think it created a healthy change for kids,” Merritt says. “And I’m really proud of that.”
By Chris Rosenblum
Photos by Nabil K. Mark