All Students Thrive – Loop The Transition Years
All students thrive when the school community finds creative solutions to meet all students’ needs. In a previous post, I discussed the critical seventh and tenth grade school years for students. After years of falling behind academically, seventh graders disengage from learning. Many teens find getting “kicked out” of class much more preferable than being exposed to peers as struggling learners. By 10th grade, research shows that most of these struggling students disengage completely, and make the decision to drop out. These dropouts then have a much higher chance for incarceration, especially young men of color. The classroom to prison pipeline is perpetuated unless schools take an active role in breaking from traditional education models and address the root causes and find real solutions.
An important factor to consider in the seventh/tenth grade challenge is the recognition that both of these critical years occur immediately following a “transition year”. Sixth grade is a common grade for students to move to a middle school. At their new site, elementary students encounter dramatic systemic and cultural changes as they adjust to multiple teachers, each with their own subject area and expectations. While ninth is usually the first year for high school; freshmen students also encounter a whirlwind of change.
It is not unusual to see a drop in cohort reading and math scores at their new school during these transition years. Students need additional time and support to adjust to the culture and academic rigor, and it is imperative more schools find ways to create additional networks of connections to keep all students on track. For many of the struggling students, the academic learning gap only widens during this time of change.
There are many schools that take proactive approaches to manage the students as they enter these transition years. Middle schools may offer separate lunch times or eating areas for their younger sixth grade students to minimize their interaction with the upper grades. Middle schools may offer “core classes”, where students stay with the same teacher for multiple periods of math/science or english language arts/social studies. This adjustment in the master schedule serves the dual purpose of reducing the number of teachers a student is assigned to, while increasing relationship-building opportunities.
In California, some school leaders use these core class structures to mitigate the issues of credentialing. Teachers must possess single-subject specialist credentials in middle school unless they teach a core class. Some schools find a benefit to hiring multiple-subject credentialed elementary teachers for 6th grade core classes. Their experience and training for self-contained classes can support the younger students, providing nurturing learning environments, and more relationship-building time.
High schools may offer similar programs for their freshman including extra advisory or elective time, but to reduce the high school dropout rate, more needs to be done.
What I propose as a solution takes these best practices and extends the relationship-building opportunities. Looping is a systemic strategy where classroom teachers stay with their students for a second year or more. It is mostly found in elementary schools, but I believe the implementation can be very practical in middle and high schools as well. Communities that have implemented these programs have recognized many positive and favorable benefits. Looping allows students and teachers to build stronger relationships, explore subjects with a greater depth of knowledge, creates additional time to implement cross-curricular project-based learning, and improves parent-engagement opportunities.
For a unified school district with K-5, 6-8 and 9-12 schools I propose the following to support 6th and 9th grade students:
Middle schools use multiple-subject self-contained classrooms in 6th grade. Students make the transition from 1-classroom teacher to changing classes over the course of the school year by student needs. The self-contained classroom arrangement provides the most flexible opportunities for both homogeneous (leveled instruction) and heterogeneous groupings (mixed abilities). Advanced students may access more challenging curriculum by rotating into 7th and 8th grades classes as needed, or the increased flexibility frees up content area specialists to teach 6th grade classes.
Just as vital, the feeding schools 5th grade teachers and middle school 6th grade teachers loop with their students and rotate back to elementary over a two-year cycle to provide additional socio-emotional and academic support. Having a friendly and familiar face at the new school should help to minimize students anxiety and other transitional issues. The trust and experience earned at the elementary school allows for more meaningful instructional time at the middle school. The two-year emphasis provides more opportunities for intensive strategic academic support for struggling students.
In a similar manner, 8th grade content area teachers and 9th grade content area teachers also loop for a two-year cycle with their students. In addition, electives which support study, skills, academic identity-building, career and college preparedness studies are mandatory for the 9th grade classes. The school all needs to prioritize additional counseling and academic resources to support these two years.
If the goal is increase student engagement, provide intensive academic support for struggling students, and reduce the impact of school discipline and high school drop outs, I believe a two-year focus on the transition years provides the most extensive and flexible opportunities. I will continue adding more pieces to this proposal as I build out my blueprint for success. In the meantime, this is something to mull over!
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