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What worries students about middle school?

In no particular order: eighth-graders, fitting in, lockers, more demanding classes and the chaos of class changes. But students say information and preparation would go a long way toward smoothing the transition.

It's the unknowns that loom largest. Current middle-school students say they didn't understand the structure of teams of teachers and students. Some didn't know about middle-school magnet programs – or how many middle schools there are in Newport News Public Schools. Before they started sixth grade, they didn't know that students in different grade levels have little contact with each other at school – or that they wouldn't have every subject every day.

Having a rough idea of the daily schedule would help, they say. Having a planner with them on the first day of school is a must. Knowing how to open a locker and being skilled at moving their belongings from room to room is important. And, knowing they're not the only ones with those concerns is reassuring.

Tessa Danehy, an eighth-grader at Hines Middle School, says, "I thought it would be like college." Tessa, who conducted school tours for elementary students as a sixth-grader, thinks open houses and counselor visits to fifth-grade classes make the move to a new school easier. It's also comforting to know you're not alone, she says. "On the first day of classes, everyone was as nervous as you were."

Miranda Venable, a sixth-grader at Huntington Middle School, says finding her way around the school was her biggest concern. Her Huntington classmate, Zeiyn Stewart, also a sixth-grader, says he wondered how he would fit in. Dorian Smith, a seventh-grader at Dozier Middle School, says his challenge was getting himself and his belongings to his classes. This year, he is better-organized, he says. He and Dozier eighth-grader Ajibola Oladipo say they also had to adjust to an earlier start to the school day, which has them at the bus stop in the dark in winter.

Hines eighth-grader Austin Reed and Tessa had both read a lot about the middle-school experience. (See accompanying article for book suggestions.) Hines eighth-grader Nicholas Augustus has an older sister, and was somewhat familiar with the school's layout. His parents also talked to him about the transition.

Knowing someone who's been to middle school also helped Hines seventh-graders Malik Holmes and Abby Keatts. Malik's cousin talked to him about the courses he'd be taking. Abby says a friend gave her advice about what to expect. Zeiyn says a cousin told him about class changes and odd and even days. Miranda's sister, a 12th-grader, told her about the need for hall passes.

Preparation doesn't appeal to everyone, though. Hines seventh-grader Will Davis says he prefers to dive into new experiences. As someone who already stood out because he was taller than his classmates, he says he was more focused on interior, emotional changes. Will says he "lucked into" music/band and found a sense of belonging there.

All of the middle-school students say feeling like they were a part of things didn't take long. Zeiyn, Dorian and Ajibola all say their sixth-grade teachers were especially welcoming and inclusive. While the students do have a sense of belonging, they also say they still feel pressure to fit in, especially when it comes to clothes. They're divided about the merits of school uniforms.

Tessa says the social dynamics of middle-school dating came as something of a surprise. Students at all three schools say they've learned to choose friends carefully. Hines eighth-grader Shaniquez Vance adds that getting to work in class can be difficult if there's a friend there you don't see at any other time. Hailey Frazier, a Hines seventh-grader who moved to Newport News from Chicago, says she worried initially about not having more friends.

Some students weathered the academic challenges of middle school better than others. Zeiyn and Miranda say they've been challenged by English class. Ajibola says algebra, which she took as a seventh-grader, was difficult. Exams for high-school courses also are a new experience. Hailey says she didn't have to study in elementary school, adding that learning the skill in middle school is difficult.

The students enjoy the greater range of choices for school clubs and activities, but Ajibola says she went overboard at first, signing up for too many organizations. She advises new middle-school students to limit their participation to two or three activities. The students, especially Miranda, who's a vegetarian, also appreciate the greater options offered by their school cafeterias. And, all of the eighth-graders are considering magnet schools and specialty programs for high school. Two mentioned interviews for the International Baccalaureate program at Warwick High School.

Middle schools are more than K-5 programs on a larger-scale. The approach to educating students in grades six through eight is tailored to physical, mental, emotional and social changes students are experiencing in adolescence and those on the horizon.

In practical terms, that means:

The middle school population is larger, but students in different grades keep to themselves. They have a core group of three or four teachers and belong to teams. Those smaller worlds within a school create an environment that mimics the closeness of an elementary school and provides a sense of belonging while allowing students to grow into new roles.

The team approach (a core team usually has English, math, social studies and science teachers) allows the group to coordinate planning, find common ground across the curriculum and offer students more personalized individual attention. The presence of a number of adults with whom they're in regular contact also helps ensure that students can find an adult mentor. Each grade level usually has a counselor and assistant principal, too.

Learning is more active. Because adolescents are naturally curious and adventurous, they learn more effectively by interacting and participating in activities instead of listening. But they still have to listen.

Some middle school students are just tall enough to ride adult rides at an amusement park, while others are approaching six feet in height and sprouting facial hair. In addition to the physical transformation of adolescence, there are intellectual, emotional and social changes students have to weather. Their thinking becomes more abstract. Their emotions can seesaw. Socially, they are learning what makes them tick as individuals and how they fit into larger social groups. Middle school is designed to help them make the transition.

Related arts classes cover a variety of interests, like music, art, foreign languages, computers and magnet program courses. There also are dozens of clubs and activities and intramural and interscholastic athletics in which students can participate. Career exploration becomes more systematic and purposeful in middle school, and some organizations and clubs reflect that.