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'Middle school' is much more than a name

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When School District 833's junior high schools become middle schools this fall, much more than the schools' grade configurations will change.

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Students in grades six through eight will be part of a middle school system, which emphasizes relationships among students and staff.

Teams of teachers will work with the same group of students, and they'll meet daily to discuss students to learn what is working, and what areas a student may need help in.

"The teachers will be discussing those kids Monday through Friday all year," said Kari Lopez, principal at Woodbury Middle School.

In junior high, students could have anywhere from 10 to 14 teachers every year, but in the middle school system, students will maintain the same teachers all through the year.

In addition, each school will have an overall theme -- Lake Middle School is the jungle, Woodbury Middle School is natural disaster, Oltman Middle School is the Renaissance and Cottage Grove Middle School is the mountain range -- and each team will come up with their own team theme and identity. In relation to those themes, each team will do projects and assignments related to them, and have T-shirts.

The district's four middle school principals said they agree that it's this team system that is going to be the biggest benefit for students because they will have that stability and connection to the school and their teachers, so their school experiences will be more worthwhile.

"I truly believe we are the make it or break it because if we connect kids now, and connect them with the school, that is going to help connect them into high school and continue on," Lopez said. "Children are really going to be connected to the school; they're going to be connected to the staff because of the way it's set up."

The principals said it is that connection to peers, staff, and the school that will ultimately help prevent students from dropping out.

"If you don't connect with the kids, they'll drop out because I saw it at the high school -- they have no interest, they haven't connected with anyone," said Becky Schroeder, principal at Oltman Middle School. "If the kids connect with the teacher, they will do anything to please the teacher and that's the core piece."

This team system is going to ensure student-teacher interaction and individual attention for each student.

"The system is going to offer teachers more opportunities to focus on students," said Lake Middle School principal Todd Hochman. "In junior high there's a great chance to not be noticed, not to get the type of attention he or she should have, but in middle school there is going to be no excuse for students to fall through the cracks and that's really a big piece."

By focusing more on individual student achievement and taking the time to meet with other teachers, the middle school system could ultimately increase student achievement dramatically, the principals said.

"We have some very good teams put together and we have very high expectations," Hochman said. "But, ultimately I think you're looking at improved student achievement."

The principals said they have no worries about the teachers adapting to the new middle school system, because the one who have stayed, are the ones who want to see it succeed.

"The ones that are here really do believe in the middle school system," Lopez said. "There's almost no limits for teachers, they can just take things and run."

Come the fall, all four principals said they are confident in the transition going smoothly for everyone and proving to be as successful as they hope.

"It's a big shift but a positive shift," Lopez said. "We're very excited to open our doors."

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Amber Kispert-Smith
Amber Kispert-Smith has been the schools and Afton reporter at the Woodbury Bulletin since 2008. She holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Minnesota. She previously worked as a reporter for Press Publications in White Bear Lake.
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