New Canaan helps students transition from elementary to middle school
The transition from high school to college is the switch most educators and parents are concerned with, which makes sense given the drastic change in lifestyle and responsibility.
But there is another transition phase in a student's life that deserves equal attention -- the jump from elementary school to middle school.
"We have an excellent grade five transition program which actually begins in the spring and culminates August," said Saxe Middle School Principal Greg Macedo.
New Canaan is one of the few districts that employs such a program to help the children adjust to such a drastic change in a pivotal moment in their lives.
While many middle schools start at sixth grade, Saxe starts at fifth grade, giving the students even more of a transition period.
As kids enter middle school, they are presented with new structure and responsibilities and experiencing changes in their minds and bodies through puberty, according to the Association for Middle Level Education.
According to the AMLE website, amle.org, those factors make the transition that much more difficult: For many young adolescents, the transition from elementary to middle school can be a time of mixed emotions. It can also be an opportunity for new beginnings. New friends, new teachers and new a school environment can bring out excitement and, at times, a little nervous energy for middle school students.
Wendy McConaghy, an assistant principal and grade five administrator, oversees the transition process.
She says the three C's -- caring, commitment and communication -- are the tenets of the program.
"We want to make sure there are supports in place to help students make a good transition. One of the things that I started doing a few years ago when I joined the district was to visit each of the fourth-grade homerooms," McConaghy said. "So I would go to each of the classrooms and I talk to them about middle school and take questions. I think it's just great that their first contact is in an environment that they are comfortable in. Those visits are relatively short and it's great that the fourth-grade teachers are nice and welcoming to me so that I can talk to the kids and possibly drum up a little bit of excitement during the day."
McConaghy said that short visit helps her get a sense of who is excited to come to middle school and who is a little anxious to leave elementary school. She also said it helps to get them to open up when they ask about their older friends and family members that might have gone to Saxe.
"Of course they all love to ask `do you know my brother or sister?' and get a little name calling out there," McConaghy said. "I always set it up so they can ask just a couple of questions before they have an opportunity to visit."
McConaghy added that the most common questions they get concern the amount of homework, the different types of food in the new cafeteria and using a combination lock and locker. Those meetings happen in late April, nearly the same time as the parent orientation.
"I like to try to coordinate those meetings with the fourth-grade classes around the same time as the parent meetings take place, which is a night meeting to allow the parents to get affiliated with Saxe as well. So in addition to just getting an overview, the parents get to meet all the fifth-grade staff including counselors and teachers," McConaghy said. "We usually get a pretty big turnout for that. The parent teacher council is also involved during that night with the parents, selling spirit wear and getting kids excited to come to Saxe. Another great thing we do then is ask a current Saxe parent to come and speak to the upcoming parents. So the transition phase helps the parents as much as it does the student."
Still, the children are the focus, McConaghy says, and she also invites current fifth- and sixth-grade students to speak to prospective Saxe parents and students.
"I can talk about middle school all I want, but the best perspective is the experts who actually go through it," she said.
"They share their experiences in their own words about fifth grade. They keep it short, since it is nerve-wracking to talk to so many people at that age, but we have gotten good feedback on how helpful it has been."
Next, the fourth-grade students visit Saxe at the end of the school year, making three points of contact with the middle school before summer even begins.
"On those visits, we actually have some of our fifth-grade students acting as ambassadors for the incoming kids," she said. "We pair many of those fifth-graders with their old fourth-grade homeroom teachers when we can to give them some level of comfort. So in a way, those fifth-graders are completing their full transition to Saxe at the end of the year with that visit when they interact with the fourth-graders."
Another big change is the academic work load. Middle school runs on a period schedule similar to high school and very different from elementary school, where students spend most of their day with one teacher.
"In elementary school they are used to having their daily schedule and here they get that schedule that is mailed home so there are definitive periods throughout the day," McConaghy said. "I think there is a little bit more in terms of the workload. They have more teachers in passing and have a locker. These are little things that end up being a big change. However, through those changes we are able to build their independence slowly."
Yet even with all these things in place, transition is not always easy. McConaghy says she does not expect kids to just get everything in their first day or even the first week. It is a process that takes time and patience.
"There are certainly teaching moments and everyone here understands that," she said. "We do not expect anyone to just get everything perfect the moment they walk in. But we try to make sure they know as much as possible before they walk through the door because it is not easy. They are seeing new teachers and classmates on a level they are not used to. But we are there for them every step of the way."