By Celine Klosterman
BURLINGTON — Last year, they would have been at the top of their school’s totem pole.
Now, they have a few years to go.
Notre Dame schools have moved sixth-graders from the elementary to the junior/senior high division, in an effort to save money on faculty, free up space to expand the pre-kindergarten program, offer sixth-graders a strong education and retain students who might have transferred to one of Burlington’s public middle schools after fifth grade.
Talk of making the change began after Sister Joan Bellew, a junior/senior high religion teacher, announced she’d retire after the 2008-09 school year, Ron Glasgow said. He is principal of the junior/senior high.
Nita Carlson, then Notre Dame’s sixth-grade teacher, voiced interest in Sr. Bellew’s position. Glasgow said that if Carlson took it and Notre Dame moved sixth grade into the junior/senior high building, where faculty teach by subject rather than by grade, Notre Dame wouldn’t have to hire another sixth-grade teacher. Junior/senior high faculty — nearly all of whom are certified to teach grades five to 12 — would have to add class periods for sixth-graders, though.
April Hamma, junior/senior high math teacher, says she now teaches one more period than last year, but still has one free period and manages by working at home during evenings. She said one of her high-school students will be able to tutor sixth-graders if needed.
“I think it is too early to say for sure how it will go, but the year has started out smoothly and the students are adjusting well,” she said.
Corey Lamm, junior/senior high science teacher, said that beginning next year he’ll teach seven — instead of six — of eight class periods per day. He’s teaching sixth-grade general science now and said, “I have noticed I have the opportunity to teach skills that I previously didn’t need to. One of the biggest challenges I have is shifting from sixth-graders to my seniors in anatomy class.”
But he and Hamma said they think the change will benefit sixth-graders.
Glasgow agrees. Junior/senior high students have a longer school day and can spend more time with each core subject, he said. “This should reflect in a better ITBS (Iowa Test of Basic Skills) score.”
Sixth-graders also now can take keyboarding classes offered by the junior/senior high business teacher, and will meet more often for physical education, music and art classes.
Notre Dame hopes such advantages will help keep fifth-graders from transferring to local public middle schools. Glasgow said that for the past few years the Catholic school has lost about 20 percent of its students after fifth grade, but this year, it retained all of them — and gained a new sixth-grader. “Now, the students who like Notre Dame but wanted to go on to a middle school setting can stay here,” he said.
Most sixth-graders who shared their thoughts with The Catholic Messenger said they appreciate the middle-school environment.
“I like having tons of teachers instead of just one,” Gabrielle Lillie said. Olivia Krieger said she also loves changing classes, but the transitions make Makaela Kreiss feel rushed between class periods. “I don’t like having classes on different floors,” she said.
Tobin Gach said he now feels more independent, while Hannah Delaney looked up to the upperclassmen. “It’s great to see the older kids and follow them,” she said.
Makaela’s mother, Kerry Kreiss, said she was at first concerned about how much sixth-graders would interact with high-school students. But Notre Dame reassured her, noting that the junior high and high school students generally share just three minutes together during passing periods, when teachers are monitoring in the halls. “The older students are very respectful,” Kreiss said.
Notre Dame is a small school and its students are “pretty good kids for the most part,” said Tracy Gach, Tobin’s father. Older students can act as role models for sixth-graders, he added.
High school religion students will mentor sixth-graders in a school Big Brothers/Big Sisters program, and older and younger students eat lunch together during Catholic Schools Week.
Glasgow said that had there been problems between high school and junior high students, Notre Dame wouldn’t have moved sixth-graders up.
“Our atmosphere in the building is really positive.”