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Nurturing the In-between Years: It’s All About Relationships

Districts Act to Meet Middle Schoolers’ Needs


Middle school is a notoriously tough time for students, as they make the transition from well-ordered elementary school to increasingly independent high school. In Kent County, administrators are starting to increase focus on these in-between years, with promising results.

Godwin Heights Public Schools Superintendent Bill Fetterhoff added more staff this year at the fifth- through eighth-grade building to meet students’ needs.

“We’ve known for a long time that where we were losing kids is not at the high school,” Fetterhoff said.

Editor’s note: This is the second installment of a two-part series on the challenges of middle school and what local districts are doing to meet them. Read more: Nurturing the In-between Years

The district hired Godwin Middle School Principal Aaron Berlin and two deans, one assigned to fifth and sixth grades and one to seventh and eighth grades, along with a counselor. The middle school is also now a Kent School Services Network community school, with an on-site community school coordinator and clinician to connect students to resources.

“We are really trying to target at-risk kids and give them additional support,” Berlin said.

At Kelloggsville Middle School, a new daily advisory period called TEAM — standing for Trustworthiness, Encouragement, Achievement and Manners — offers an added layer to the staff’s efforts to get to know students.

The message they most need to hear, said Principal Jim Alston, is simple: “You have to let them know you care, more than at any other grade level. … It’s just meant to build relationships with smaller groups of kids. It goes back to whether those students know you care or not.”

At Caledonia’s two middle schools, Duncan Lake and Kraft Meadows, teachers use an early warning system based on three data components — attendance, behavior and course completion — to predict as early as sixth grade students who are at risk of dropping out. Middle school staff review that data three times a year and determine what supports students need.

Cydney Hansma, of Kelloggsville Middle School, finds a spot under the desk after being declared “out” during a game in TEAM class
Cydney Hansma, of Kelloggsville Middle School, finds a spot under the desk after being declared “out” during a game in TEAM class

A Sense of Family

Cedar Springs Middle School has maintained a mini-school teaming model for the past six years, which allows teachers and students to create a sense of family, said Principal Sue Spahr.

The seventh- and eighth-grade school is structured into teams of four or five teachers who share the same group of about 130 students.

“This allows our students and staff to build deeper relationships with each other, agree to norms of how we desire our ‘family’ to treat each other, offer academic support and share ways of working together that helps everyone achieve more,” Spahr said.

The district has used the teaming model on and off over the years, depending on funding and staffing. Teams of teachers meet to collaborate and coordinate instruction and interventions for students. Close communication with home and school staff helps meet the needs of each child, she said.

Students feel safe, trusting that they can confide in their teachers regarding their academics as well as social and emotional needs, Spahr added. “It allows flexibility within their schedule, offering opportunities to celebrate success and offer additional support to students as needed.”

The concept has helped improve attendance and student success, she said.

While districts use several different grade configurations in their middle schools, Spahr said, there’s not one magic formula, whether it’s sixth through eighth grades; fifth and sixth and seventh and eighth in two separate buildings; or even fifth through eighth or seventh through ninth. Separation of grade levels inside the same building, however, can help build relationships.

“I truly believe that what works best is creating a vision for your middle grades, reading the research on building a positive learning environment, setting high expectations, believing in and supporting all students to succeed, and ensuring that we are consistent with how all teams are supporting students,” Spahr said.

Students pass around a hula hoop during the problem-solving activity
Students pass around a hula hoop during the problem-solving activity

Long-Term Thinking

At Godwin, Principal Aaron Berlin said middle schoolers aren’t always thinking long-term. He teaches them to envision themselves walking on the stage as a graduate. “I think many of them don’t believe how quickly that comes,” he said.

Senior year is very different for students who focused on good grades during middle school and those who didn’t. The difference is between choosing a college and working to catch up on credits to graduate, Berlin said.

“Getting that thought process into every eighth-grader who’s going to be a ninth-grader — that’s the challenge.”

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Association of Middle Level Education

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Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese is associate managing editor and reporter, covering Byron Center, Kentwood, Wyoming and Grand Rapids Community College. She was one of the original SNN staff writers, helping launch the site in 2013 and enjoys fulfilling the mission of sharing the stories of public education. She has worked as a journalist in the Grand Rapids area since 2000. A graduate of Central Michigan University, she has written for The Grand Rapids Press, Advance Newspapers, On-the-Town Magazine and Group Tour Media. Read Erin's full bio or email Erin.

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