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Wells Middle and Murray Elementary School Partner to Prepare Parents for Transition to Middle School

April 26, 2014
Murray Elementary School 5th Grade Parent Night Spring 2014

Murray Elementary School 5th Grade Parent Night

It was 7:00 PM on a Tuesday night on Davona Drive in Dublin. It was an hour when many young students were completing their homework, a time when some tired parents were returning home from a day of work or a moment to share a meal around the family table. On this night, parents collected in the Multi-Purpose Room at Murray Elementary School. Was there a band concert, fundraiser or PFC meeting? No. On Tuesday, numerous parents and guardians gathered to attend a 5th Grade Parent Meeting. Murray Elementary School Principal Carrie Nerheim hosted an evening that would hopefully enlighten (and hopefully relieve) the parents of the promoting fifth grade class of 2014 that will land at Wells Middle School in August, 2014. Wells Middle School Principal Dr. Kevin Grier was on hand to provide an overview of the middle school experience and to steer a question and answer period for those present.

Regardless of whether families have sent their older children through the system, academic evaluations and statewide testing has radically changed in just the past few years. California has joined the vast majority of states in the union in adopting Common Core Standards and abandoning California Statewide Tests (CST). Though the results won’t be recorded in this first-year evaluation of the system, the Smarter Balanced Assessments will take hold in 2015.

From an emotional standpoint, it can be a rather significant moment for a parent to release their child from a relative “safe haven” of elementary school in to the secondary education level. No longer will the student reside in the same classroom all day. There are multiple subjects to manage, the need to become versed in time management and a locker combination to memorize.

Fortunately, the Wells administration and staff have continuously refined a system to help indoctrinate incoming 6th graders successfully. Presently, the three feeder elementary schools to WMS are Murray, Dublin and Frederiksen Elementary schools. We attended the Parent Night for two reasons: To take a look at how the articulation process is viewed within the District and to understand how parents may respond this process.

When DUSD committed to creating a Professional Learning Community a few years ago, one of the goals was to ensure collaboration across both grade and subject levels. Another goal was to improve the results of articulation between primary and secondary education. We began our exploration with Murray Elementary lead teacher, Denise Fisher. Denise has been a Fifth Grade teacher at Murray for over a decade and she offered these thoughts. What strategies do you and your 5th grade teaching colleagues employ to aid your student’s transition to middle school?

Denise Fisher

Denise Fisher

Denise Fisher: “Our fifth grade team feels that organization is a huge skill needed for middle school. We spend a lot of time with our students teaching them organizational strategies so they can keep up with their assignments and the activities at school. We have used assignment notebooks for years to help the students know exactly what their homework is and when it is due.  Many of the teachers also chunk major projects into separate due dates to teach the children why it is important to develop a plan and work on it in small steps rather than trying to tackle the project all at once.  Time management is a definite challenge for eleven-year-olds.  We have detailed conversations with the students discussing project details and what should be prioritized with their work.

“The other strategy that I am proudest of at our school is how we encourage and expect the students to be responsible for themselves.  The fifth grade teachers want the students to learn how to recognize what the main problem is that they re facing, such a forgotten math book, and put the onus on them to solve it.  We model ways to work through common school stumbling blocks early in the year so they have a pretty full tool kit to use to help them as they move forward in school. “I don’t know” is not accepted and the students haven’t tried to use that phrase since September.” Please articulate what skill sets and behavioral goals have been conveyed to you by the staff at Wells Middle School.

Fisher: “As the common core gains speed, the skill sets will most definitely change.  We have always found having strong study habits, such as organization and personal responsibility, will create strong students.

“By following the curriculum guidelines set up by the state we are confident our students will be ready for middle school.  District collaboration opportunities have also provided a wealth of information and guidance between the elementary and middle schools. As for myself, I participate on the district’s science committee that consists of two middle school science teachers. They have been extremely helpful in communicating the expectations of both middle schools.

“I also believe the great relationship our principal has with Dr. Grier and the staff of Wells gives us great direction as well.  Ms. Nerheim has a long history of working with the middle school as both a teacher and administrator. Her contacts there help us get the answers to our questions regarding curriculum or behavioral goals.“ For some students, the leap from primary to secondary education can be a rather large one.  Some of the new challenges include time management, adjusting to a different teacher for each subject and the social aspects of middle school.  What advice would you offer to the parents of promoting 5th graders?

Fisher: “Advice for the parents? It would be small steps and many conversations.  When my son attended middle school, I thought it would be the big challenges that would bother him such as having multiple teachers. I had to be a good listener to find out that in his eyes his biggest challenge was figuring out how to work the PE lock.  We solved that and moved on to the next challenge.  I think as a parent we need to really listen to what our children are saying and put our ideas aside for a short while.  Once school starts, or as the children’s worries lesson, parents can regroup and discuss those more adult focused challenges once again.  The first step is to get the students comfortably in the door and wanting to be there.

“My last bit of advice is to get involved. You don’t have to run for president of the parent club. Keep it small. Chaperone a dance, attend a sports event, just be there. It will open the doors to communicating with your child by having those common events in your life. And the best part is you will meet other adults who are probably facing the same school issues that you are having at home. I just also enjoyed putting faces to the names my son mentioned when he talked about his day.” Your classroom can also be viewed as the “last station” as the students move onto the next phase of their lives.  However, we are confident that some of them have returned to Murray to update you on their progress.  Care to share an anecdote or two?

Fisher: “It is interesting that you mention fifth grade as being the “last station”.  I think most fifth grade teachers are absolutely fierce about fighting for their students and their families to get them services or whatever help they need before the end of the year. This is because it feels like the last stop. I have always felt I was their last chance…their last chance to learn multiplication facts, their last chance to qualify for interventions, their last chance to build strong social skills. I know it is not true. That the middle school really puts a lot of time and effort into meeting the many needs of so many different students, but it is a feeling I have always had.

“I absolutely love having my students come back to visit. When they are not telling me how small the room looks they are telling me what I should teach. One year I was told I should do more projects. I politely did not remind my former student of when she was in 5th grade and told me I did too many projects. Recently a student came to visit and said I should teach square roots in math. That the middle school started using them right away and it would be handy to know a little in advance.  Most of the time they come back and tell me that middle school is easy. That is the best thing they could say. It means they were ready.”

Over 40 elected to attend the 5th Grade Parent Night. This included a mixture of parents that have children that have already completed their education through Dublin High School to others that are making a first-time transition to Wells. In either case, some were willing to share a bit of nervousness about the change. This is completely normal and we feel that this event put a dent into allaying the fears for some of these families. This type of atmosphere has been a high priority for Wells Middle School Principal, Dr. Kevin Grier. As the parent of three children, he is firmly embedded in the process that many families may be experiencing. With that, we sat down with Principal Grier to gain feedback on how he views the transition. Please explain the benefits experienced by your outreach to the three feeder elementary schools to WMS in the past few years.

Dr. Kevin Grier

Dr. Kevin Grier

Kevin Grier: “I believe that these town hall style meetings help to ease the parents’ minds about sending their children to the next level of schooling.  I think too that the meetings have encouraged the parents to find ways that they can be involved as a parent in a middle school environment.” A little trepidation is normal for parents of elementary students promoting up to middle school.  What measures have you and your staff established to make this transition a bit easier?

Grier: “Wells tries to set up opportunities during the child’s 5th grade year in which to begin to get the students familiar with the principal and the counselor.  I make it a point to go out before winter break to each 5th grade class and introduce myself to the next RoadRunners. The counselor goes out in the spring to talk about class schedules. I go back again the spring to reconnect with the students and ask if they have any other questions. We invite the parents to come to an incoming 6th grade parent information night. I hold Parent Night Town Hall meetings at each feeder school.  Finally, we have an event run by our Leadership Class in which all incoming 6th grade students come to Wells for a tour. During this event, we are also going to host a separate tour and Q&A session just for the parents who help to chaperone the event.” For family members that have been immersed in literally the daily workings of their elementary school, what advice would you offer to those that wish to continue their involvement at the middle school?

Grier: “I would encourage all parents to find all ways possible to remain connected to their child’s education so that their child feels like school is still very important to the parents.  I know there is a tendency to “step back” from school at the middle school level, especially if they were active in elementary school.  However, this is not the time to step back, despite what their kids may say.  The middle school student actually likes the structure and the knowledge that the parents are still there for them.  Being involved at the middle school certainly looks different than at the elementary level.  Parents can help in the library, at lunch supervision, and morning drop off. Parents can also be involved by attending PFC meetings, PFC events, school events (sports, music and drama), SSC meetings, Open House, or Back to School Night.   A parent is also welcome to help a teacher out in the classroom.” Secondary education is clearly different.  A child will interact in multiple subjects with multiple teachers.  How might you counsel parents/guardians when it comes to managing their child’s relationship with teachers and counselors?

Grier: “I would always suggest making contact with the teachers early on if there is something that the teachers should know about the child in terms of learning styles, study habits, etc.  It is also great to talk with the counselor to let her know anything about the child that might help the counselor place the child for greatest success.  Communication is essential at middle school level and the more the dialogue is occurring the better the chances are that the child feels that support and becomes more confident.” Most incoming parents to Wells will be adjusting to the letter grading system.  This is a vast departure to what they’ve been accustomed to over the past six years.  How would you suggest that these families navigate this evaluation system in concert with the Parent Portal?

Grier: “We strongly encourage parents (and students) to be regular visitors on the Parent (Student) Portal so that they are as informed as they can be about the academic progress of their child.  The quarter is only 10 weeks long so if a child slips and it goes unnoticed, it can sometimes be very difficult to correct the academic decline until the following quarter when the child starts fresh with grades.  If the parent feels that they need more information about their child’s progress, they should feel comfortable to email, phone call, or text the teacher.” Anything else that you would like to add?

Grier: “It is very helpful to find a way each day to question their child on what they learned, what they felt was good about the day, what they felt went well.  The daily dialogue with your child is another powerfully positive message to your child that you care about school and their success.  Also, be mindful that along with grades, it is also important during the middle school years to increase the self-confidence level, the self-advocacy level, and the self-determination level of the child so that they can work towards great independence by the time high school rolls around and college looms on the horizon.”

The shift between elementary school to middle school represents both physical and emotional changes. It is our hope that an event, such as the “Murray Elementary 5th Grade Parent Night”, provides some comfort to their families. It remains as the change that continues to be constant. With each passing year, our children are getting older. thanks Denise Fisher and Kevin Grier for their contributions to this story.

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