Principal Artesza Portee (left) checks on Alex Stilwell (right) and Cedric Shy, both 11, as they write what things they are nervous about starting middle school. When complete, the class discusses them anonymously. Incoming sixth-graders at Sylvan Hills Middle School take part in the summer bridge program designed to help students leaving elementary school adjust to their new life as middle schoolers. BOB ANDRES / ROBERT.ANDRES@AJC.COM
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Atlanta schools, parents prep kids for big new world: middle school

Picture a time when you felt completely confident and in control.

Are you flashing back to middle school?

Didn’t think so.

All those new kids, the bigger building, the changing hormones.

Across Georgia, about 138,000 public school students are starting sixth grade, when middle school begins for many.

A few months ago, these kids were the biggest fish in elementary school. Now they’re small fry. Throw in puberty, school safety concerns and social pressures, and it makes for a pretty intense time.

“I think that middle school is a huge transition that people often minimize or don’t recognize,” said Takeshia Berkeley, a former school counselor whose daughter is starting sixth grade in Fulton County. “Transitions are scary. Transitions are overwhelming, but they’re a part of life.”

To calm those fears and set students up for success, schools, parents and counselors are paying more attention to the jump from elementary to middle school. Schools offer chances for students to tour the building and meet teachers before classes begin. And some parents are seeking out counseling and coaching services to prepare their children.

The jitters can be just as bad for parents.

“They want to go to class with them the entire day,” said Artesza Portee, principal of Sylvan Hills Middle School in Atlanta. “I have to tell them, ‘Mom, I’ve got them.’ ”

Gabrielle Burch, 11, gets some help from Sakeenah McDonald, the sixth-grade counselor, as she looks for the music room on a scavenger hunt. The purpose is to help them learn the layout of the school. Incoming sixth-graders at Sylvan Hills Middle School take part in the summer bridge program designed to help students leaving elementary school adjust to their new life as middle schoolers. BOB ANDRES / ROBERT.ANDRES@AJC.COM
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Researchers say the move to middle school is pivotal to academic careers, and a good plan can result in better attendance and grades.

“When students struggle with transition, they don’t want to come to school, they don’t want to get involved in anything,” said James Barnes, board vice-chair for the Association for Middle Level Education and a New Jersey principal. “The research says when you transition there’s tendency to have students drop off and become disinterested in school.”

At Sylvan Hills, about 70 incoming sixth-graders registered for a five-day summer bridge program before school starts Aug. 12.

Changes abound, said Portee. The middle school day starts about an hour later than elementary school, and classes dismiss at 4:05 p.m. instead of 2:30 p.m. Several elementary schools feed into Sylvan Hills, so students won’t know everybody.

During the bridge program, students met some of the teachers and learned the rules. They worked on problem solving and social and emotional skills, like how to communicate when they’re upset without cursing or fighting. When teacher Caroline McLeod asked students to jot down what made them nervous, one boy wrote with precise penmanship: Making new friends.

“It’s a new environment for them,” McLeod said. “We empower them from day one.”

A sign in Caroline McLeod’s sixth-grade class during the summer bridge program reminds students of the school rules. Incoming sixth-graders at Sylvan Hills Middle School take part in the summer bridge program designed to help students leaving elementary school adjust to their new life as middle schoolers. BOB ANDRES / ROBERT.ANDRES@AJC.COM
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Xander Hudson, 11, already knows where to find the lunch room, gym and library thanks to a scavenger hunt that sent students searching through mostly empty hallways.

He’s looking forward to moving to classes on his own and no longer walking in lines like he did in elementary school.

But he had been a bit worried about older kids. A specific part from the popular middle school saga “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” stuck with him. The scene involved lockers and wedgies.

“That’s one thing that had me scared for a second,” Xander said.

After spending time at his new school, he’s feeling excited for sixth grade.

Students participate in a scavenger hunt that helps them learn the layout of the school. Incoming sixth-graders at Sylvan Hills Middle School take part in the summer bridge program designed to help students leaving elementary school adjust to their new life as middle schoolers. BOB ANDRES / ROBERT.ANDRES@AJC.COM
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Some parents have sought out help for their middle schoolers on their own.

Within months of school starting last fall, Ashley Skidmore, a licensed clinical social worker, received calls from concerned parents asking for advice. So this summer, she offered a one-week middle school transition group through her Skidmore Counseling practice in Tucker.

“It is so important to feel prepared, and that is going to reduce anxiety tremendously,” she said.

A handful of students signed up for the sessions led by Caroline Spillers, a licensed associate professional counselor.

The group talked about their new schools, what clubs they offered and their mascots. They covered stress management, organization skills and self-esteem.

Rachel Smith sent her son, a soon-to-be sixth-grader at DeKalb County’s Henderson Middle School, to the sessions.

“We want to prepare our kids for the road rather than paving the road for them,” she said.

That means teaching children to deal with adversity, she said.

She wanted her son to learn to manage anxiety, how to react if he’s bullied and to “surround himself with people who accept him for the way he is rather than surround himself with people who he’s seeking approval from.”

Jennifer Henley’s son is starting sixth grade in Clayton County this year. She’s prepping for the changes up ahead.

“A lot of us don’t exactly have great recollections of middle school. I think everybody felt kind of lost in middle school,” said Henley, a high school teacher.

Elementary school is an especially nurturing environment: Most of the students know each other and their teachers, she said. In middle school, there are more students and more opportunities to encourage independence, new interests and passions.

Incoming sixth-graders practice using a combination lock during a back-to-school readiness event for students in south Fulton County organized by Takeshia Berkely, a former school counselor whose own daughter also is entering sixth grade this year. PHOTO SUBMITTED BY TAKESHIA BERKELEY
Photo: Courtesy of TAKESHIA BERKELEY

Berkeley, the Fulton County mom, organized an event to give sixth-graders a preview of what middle school is like. She said 17 kids showed up. They talked about making new friends and the importance of not bowing to peer pressure. They practiced using combination locks since lockers are a big source of stress for some kids, many of whom are getting a school locker for the first time.

She even set aside time for parents to talk about their own fears and ask questions.

One big takeaway?

“You are not expected to know everything the first day,” she said. “We have to give ourselves some grace to figure it out.”

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