Most students at Whitehall Central School are probably thinking more about their upcoming summer break in two months than they are the next school year, but at least one subset of students is getting a jump start on what to expect come September.
The district will begin its annual shadowing program on Monday, April 29. The program prepares elementary school students for the transition to middle school. In the past it has always focused on sixth-grade students, but with those students having been relocated to the high school last September, the focus has now shifted to the fifth grade.
“It’s essentially the same thing just with a different set of students,” said Topher Montville, junior high and middle school guidance counselor.
When administrators made the decision to move the sixth grade into the high school, they instituted several changes to insulate the younger students from their older peers.
A typical day for sixth-graders is divided into several blocks or cohorts where students focus on English, math, or an elective, whereas high school students follow a more traditional nine-period day. Middle school students also spend their entire day in one wing of the school.
The changes provide students with a taste of the high school experience while allowing teachers to maintain some structure and control over the students’ day. That doesn’t mean, however, that there isn’t an adjustment period or some apprehension about a transition to a new building with older students and that’s where the shadowing program comes in.
“The transition is still there. The students experience many of the same anxieties,” said Montville. “The program helps to ease those anxieties.”
The program typically lasts for three to four weeks and every fifth grade student spends a full day “shadowing” a sixth grader.
“They go through the day as if they are in sixth grade. They ride the early bus, get the experience of changing lockers, following a schedule, and find the lunchroom and library,” Montville said.
Staff at the elementary and high schools work collaboratively to pair fifth and sixth-graders of similar academic interests. For instance, if there is a student who will take band next year, an effort is made to pair that student with a sixth-grader in band.
The program can also work in reverse. Montville said some students may attend a class they had no intention of taking but end up developing an interest in the subject.
“They get that exposure and can decide if they want to do it,” he said.
The lessons aren’t limited to the fifth grade students. The sixth grade “guides” are asked to serve as role models for the younger students and assume a leadership role.
“We hold the guides accountable for their and their shadow’s behaviors and actions. It reinforces many of the skills we’ve worked with them on in the past,” Montville said.
After the program, each student is asked to provide input on their experience to help administrators make tweaks and improvements in the future.
One such idea that will be implemented this year is a designated lunch table.
“It alleviates the anxiety of trying to figure out who to sit with. It’s also an opportunity for us to sit and down and talk with the students about how their day is going.”
Montville said this is just one part of a series of transition experiences that will be held prior to next school year. There will also be a transition night for parents and students and an orientation experience just before school starts that lays out expectations for the coming school year.