Smoothing the Bumps to Middle School

Sixth-graders ponder changes on the road to this new phase of their education

Dereck O'Reilly has mixed feelings about starting junior high school in two weeks. "It makes me feel older, more mature," he says. "But I worry that I'll get lost, be late for classes. Seven classes. So much homework. It seems impossible."

Dereck and many new seventh- graders across the country are about to take a huge leap. These kids are going from being top dog at their elementary schools to being at the bottom of the heap at their more demanding junior highs.

Instead of one familiar teacher, Dereck, and the other graduates of Manorhaven Elementary school in Port Washington, N.Y., will have seven new teachers. Instead of one continuous day, there will be nine 42-minute periods. They'll have numerous homework assignments to keep track of, not to mention new classmates and classes in everything from technology to sex-education.

As a result, elementary-school graduates are often filled with great expectations - and more than a few butterflies. Yet they're not making this leap alone. Many schools give their graduates a sense of pride - and of closure - through a warmhearted sendoff. And more junior highs are now reorganizing themselves into more welcoming minischools.

Key transition

Educators see this transition as one of the most important in a child's life. "They're leaving childhood behind - the sense of being in a small environment, with adults, who all knew them and their families, and shepherded them through," explains Linda Welles, the principal of Manorhaven. "There's a lot of loss."

But there's also a sense of anticipation. Junior high beckons "like the land of milk and honey," says Richard Sloves, director of short term psychotherapy in the Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Unit at Kings County Hospital Center in New York. "It's their entree into adolescence. The benchmark for what it means to be older."

Dr. Sloves says that as junior high approaches, children may start to see themselves as more mature. "A child thinks, 'I'm through being a kid. I'm going to junior high. Maybe I'll have a boyfriend. My mother won't be walking me to the bus stop everyday.' "

Privacy and independence - that's what these kids are dreaming of. Lockers are at the top of the list: private places they can decorate. Another hoped-for thrill is "getting to go where you want to at different times," as Michael Jedlicka, of Port Washington, puts it. In elementary school, students are always escorted by their teachers.

But other concerns lie just below the surface. For many boys, junior high seems peopled by giants. "They focus on themselves as the smallest, youngest group," says Richard Gallagher, senior psychologist at Long Island Jewish Hospital's Childhood and Adolescent Psychiatric Unit in New Hyde Park. "They're concerned about being bullied. They may start acting tough."

"The girls at this age are more mature and reflective," he adds. "More likely to discuss their fears about junior high with their friends." They also tend to become focused on their appearance, he says.

"Girls have closer friends than guys do," says Radhika Vij, who lives in Port Washington, explaining why she is so anxious about her relationships changing. "But I won't lose any of my old friends," she adds firmly.

More welcoming schools

To combat these transition problems, Carrie Palmer Weber Middle School - where these Manorhaven graduates are heading - transformed itself from a traditional junior high. "We wanted to design a school that would be age-appropriate for our students," says Faith Cleary, Weber's principal. " Each student should feel there's a core of teachers who know him."

Small is better, the school's planning committee decided; their three-year research included visiting a dozen model middle schools.

Weber was then broken into Red, Blue, and Green Houses - which for the first time include sixth through eighth grades. Each house containing 300 students, is divided into 'teams.'

Students travels with their team for core classes in English, math, science, and social studies. Then they mix with other students for special subjects and for lunch.

Each house, with its own resident guidance counselor, "provides a really nurturing setting," says Ann Marie Benzinger, chairwoman of Weber's social studies department, and a member of the planning committee. So does "home base," which includes a teacher and only 12 students. Here, kids who seem apprehensive are encouraged to link up with older children in the buddy system.

The first day

"It's done gently," Mrs. Benzinger says, describing that often challenging first day of seventh grade. "We don't just plunge in." The children have an extended home-base stay in which they go over their schedules.

They're given a tour, starting with their lockers and the rest rooms. "By the end of the week, there are very few kids who aren't completely comfortable," Mrs. Benzinger adds.

Now that the summer is winding down, these kids are eager to get their class schedules. But there are still times when they think of their sixth-grade graduation, when each made a speech to parental and faculty applause.

And they were serenaded by kindergartners, who implored them - to the tune of "This Little Light of Mine" - to "take your light to Weber."

At night, as the children entered the cafeteria - which had been transformed by whirling lights and blown-up class pictures--they were handed glittery carnival wigs and sunglasses. Feeling incognito, they danced exuberantly. Most everyone danced together, jumping up and down, their arms raised in celebration.

Then the lights dimmed as the deejay announced the last song: Dionne Warwick's "That's What Friends Are For."

The whole class - along with their principal and teachers - linked arms, swaying from side to side. "See you somewhere down the line!" the DJ saluted them, and these graduates all clapped.

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