Dry run helps 6th-graders adjust

Smithfield Middle School immerses new students in daylong 'reality' camp

Staff WriterAugust 16, 2005 

Incoming sixth-graders at Smithfield Middle School came face to face with their fears Monday -- walking into the wrong classroom, changing clothes in front of their peers before gym class and returning to the bottom of the social ladder after rising to the top in elementary school.

They also got acquainted with some new additions to their daily routine, like combination locks and bells that signal class changes.

Most schools hold open houses where new students find their classrooms and meet their teachers.

But Johnston County went a step further this year with its first transition camp, a daylong event to help prepare children for the move from the nurturing environment of fifth grade to the harsh realities of middle school.

For 11-year-old Caleb Austin, who graduated from South Smithfield Elementary earlier this year, the lessons banished nightmares of getting lost in the halls when school starts Aug. 25.

"I think middle school is going to be fun," Caleb said. "I was worried and scared."

Educators say new academic and social pressures often mix with puberty to trip up students as they transition to middle school. Part of a growing trend nationally, transition camps have taken root in the Triangle and in some N.C. counties.

Johnston middle school coordinator Chris Godwin said he hopes a better transition will boost end-of-grade test scores, which also tend to dip in sixth grade. He hopes to extend the concept to more middle schools next year.

"We assume they make that transition subconsciously," Godwin said. "We wanted to make it a conscious effort."

After a talk with administrators Monday, Smithfield Middle students rotated between classrooms, learning not only where the rooms are but what their days will be like when they start sixth grade next week -- when they can go to their lockers, the bathroom and lunch; how to act in the halls and in class; and what they can do to make new friends.

In one session, students wrote down questions to avoid embarrassment. One student wondered how to deal with bullies.

"They'll probably tell you what to do and act like they're bigger than you," said eighth-grader Austin Coates, one of about a dozen older kids on hand to talk the newcomers through the changes. "You just have to ignore them and they'll go away."

Social pressures plague sixth-graders as classes from several elementary schools converge at a middle school.

Austin remembered a completely silent lunchroom on his first day of sixth grade.

"Nobody wanted to talk to anybody," Austin said.

Sixth-grade language arts teacher Joy Howerton warned students that they may feel their first heartbreak or the pain of not fitting into a certain clique.

"It's like a little club that sounds like a good idea, but it hurts some people's feelings because they feel left out,"she explained.

For Yolanda Jones, the social piece of her sixth-grade puzzle is not a problem. The talkative 12-year-old is sure she'll meet friends.

But she doesn't want to lose focus on her studies and stray onto a path toward fights or teen pregnancy.

"This is where you start everything," Yolanda said.

The students learned some other disturbing facts. They will no longer have recess, will have to wake up an hour earlier, and will need to tuck their shirts into their pants.

Principal Ann Carper said the details can overwhelm young students if they're not addressed. Walking into the wrong classroom or changing clothes in front of others are painful experiences for self-conscious pre-teens.

"They feel like everybody's looking at them," Carper said.

Staff writer Marti Maguire can be reached at 829-4841 or mmaguire@newsobserver.com.

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