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New Sixth Grade Pilot Enhances Instruction For Students, But Still Falls Short Of Recommended Middle School Model

During the 2017-2018 school year, the Nutley Public Schools piloted a teaming model with the sixth grades at Radcliffe School. Academic evidence and feedback from parents, students and teachers affirmed this as an effective practice. Beginning in the 2018-2019 school year, the district expanded implementation of the pilot of the sixth grade teaming model to include four of our five Nutley elementary schools.


In the teaming model, students receive core subject instruction on a daily basis from an  interdisciplinary team of teachers who share a set of students and plan instruction together. Teachers are able to meet regularly, in order to discuss student trends, strategies in the classroom, and communicate with families.  According to the Carnegie Council on Adolescent Development, students at the middle grades need to be able to rely on a small, caring group of adults who provide coordinated, integrated, meaningful educational experiences, while also getting to know students well enough to personalize instruction and teach them as individuals. Middle grade teachers must be highly qualified in their content area, and receive a supplemental endorsement from the State certifying them to teach at the middle level.


In the pilot students receive World Language, Physical Education, and Health (currently taught by the classroom teacher) two times  per week, versus daily in the middle school. In the pilot students follow the elementary school elective schedule with the addition of a STEAM, Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Math, class one time per week, versus in the middle school where students choose  an elective that they have daily.  Students in the pilot have less opportunity for club participation than at the middle school, and the pilot program is also lacking access to science labs, and the Advisory program.


Advisory is a big part of the middle school model.  It is a regularly scheduled period of time during the school day throughout the year when teachers meet with small groups of students as a support system for students’ academic, social, and emotional development.  The program is designed to encourage that every child has a meaningful relationship with an adult and belongs to a community of peers. The Advisory curriculum supports middle schoolers’ self-discovery and personal growth to provide a foundation for success, in middle school, high school, and even beyond. Advisory is also meant to be a proactive program giving students a safety net to develop skills and work through issues and concerns before they arise, and gives Advisors insight into their students that helps them to recognize when there are problems that might need to be addressed.


“Unfortunately, there is a limit to what we can do at sixth grade while students are still in an elementary facility, said Dr. Julie Glazer, Superintendent of Schools. “The pilot is the best we can do in our current structure, but based on the evidence, wouldn’t we want to do better and provide every opportunity for our students?”


A true middle school is one which houses grades 6, 7 and 8.  According to the National Middle School Association,  75% of school districts in the United States place sixth graders in middle school.  Adolescents have very special instructional, social, and emotional needs that vary drastically from the traditional models followed at the elementary level.  Students’ ages in a 6, 7 and 8 school more closely parallel this period of human growth and development.  By moving the sixth graders out of a traditional elementary school structure, students  gain educationally, socially, and emotionally. 


“Teachers in groups say they know students in a way they never did prior to moving to the middle school philosophy,” said JHWMS Principal, Ms. Tracy Egan. “Because of these connections, we are creating classrooms to be a safe space.  Once middle level students have a sense of belonging, classroom environments are conducive to learning.  If we had students for an additional year, this would only make for a better learning experience.”


Educational benefits of a middle school include targeted content-area instruction which enhances the the rigor of programming and academics with goals and expectations consistent across teams, integrated curriculum, and shared resources.  It also provides access to facilities and elective staff that cannot be accomplished at the elementary level. In addition, placing sixth grade in middle school allows sixth graders more independence and age-appropriate social and emotional development, including  the development of necessary executive functions  such as time management, scheduling, flexibility, planning and organizing. These skills are necessary to change classes, follow a schedule, transition between activities, ask for, and follow instructions, navigate multiple tasks, and learn from experience.   While teaming and Advisory can be used to focus on individual student needs, these models also promote improved communication among teachers, students, and parents.  


“As educators, we believe that there are many benefits of providing content-rich, highly-qualified teachers in sixth grade, and this has been a positive area of growth,” said Mr. Kent Bania, Director of Curriculum 6-12. “Combining this with the Advisory program, which supports social and emotional learning, increased science, technology, engineering, art and math (STEAM) exploration, and programs to develop health and wellness, the education of our students will be enhanced being part of the middle school.”

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