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Grand Forks teachers return from middle school tour with great optimism

Erin Perkins
By Erin Perkins
December 14th, 2012

The nine teachers who went on the second trip to Betty Gilbert Middle School in Aldergrove, BC at the end of November had a positive impression of the middle school system.

Two of the teachers attended the monthly school board meeting in Grand Forks on Tuesday, Dec. 11 to tell the board about their trip.

The trip was the second of two the district has paid for over the past year as part of their research into the middle school model and what might work for this district. Last year, due to ongoing job action, the teachers were unable to attend, said School District 51 superintendent Michael Strukoff. However, the district wanted the teachers to weigh in on the decision, and a second trip was made from November 22 to 23. The trip cost the district $5,500.

“Teachers were able to see this specific middle school model at work,” said Strukoff in an email interview with The Boundary Sentinel. “They were able to talk face-to face to teachers working in the middle school and they then could share their experience and perceptions with their fellow teachers.”

Betty Gilbert Middle School was chosen as a study model for our school district because the size of the school at 411 students, and its close proximity to the Aldergrove Secondary School resembled what our middle school could look like. It’s been in operation for four years. While they’ve had their share of adjustments, the school now runs smoothly and efficiently, according to those who visited.

Teachers liked overall elementary school feel in middle school

Sean Anderson, a Grand Forks Secondary School teacher, and Claire Naylor, a Grade 6/7 teacher from Hutton Elementary School told the board that they really enjoyed the tour and saw how a middle school format could work in our school district.

They liked the overall elementary school feel the middle school maintained, the orderly manner in which the school was managed and the great advantages students had by having access to the neighboring high school facilities for their elective options.

“Another great thing about it is its kids focused and based,” said Naylor during her presentation, which included a power point presentation with photos. “It is an elementary school where people see you and recognize your talents … It is very, very personal and it feels very homey. The child is really respected. They aren’t lost in a crowd and it’s not too big for them.”

“I really felt it was not a miniature high school,” said Naylor, who has also taught at Grand Forks Secondary School.

It felt younger, but it didn’t feel like a nursery school. It felt like an elementary school with playground equipment, art, decorations and a very lively library. An awards and recognitions ceremony that we sat through really felt warm and inviting.

“It’s a philosophy of how to get the most out of a school,” she said.

“This is an elementary school, it’s just got an extra layer of neat stuff on top,” summed up Anderson.

Both Anderson and Naylor were really impressed with how the elective options were delivered and how much the students benefited from this extra time before they reached high school.

“It was like they got a little high school and then they scampered back into elementary school,” said Naylor.

“One teacher was saying with the middle school, now they are getting kids who had the hands on metal work in Grade 6,7 and 8 so by the time they get to Grade 9 and 10 their skills are  that much further along and they can start doing way more advanced stuff, than even Grade 11 or 12s,” said Anderson. “That early exposure seems to give them a leg up.”

Naylor and Anderson liked how, as a professional, the collaborative opportunities a middle school would create for teachers.

Teacher union president also liked the set up at the Aldergrove school

In addition to the nine teachers, Hutton principal Doug Lacey, one trustee and Norm Sabourin, Boundary District Teachers’ Association president also attended.

 “(The middle school format) obviously worked very well for them,” Sabourin said of Betty Gilbert Middle School during a private interview with The Boundary Sentinel. “The teachers there were very positive about the situation …. The students were very positive. They loved going to the high school for their electives and they felt much more connected to the high school so when they go over in Grade 9, it’s not a big scary place.”

Sabourin said studies show that the configuration of a school does not affect the students academically either way; it’s the number of transitions they have to make in school that affects them the most.

“The fewer the transitions, the better,” said Sabourin, adding a transition between Grade 5 and 6 is a lot less intimidating than the present transition from Grade 7 to the high school in Grade 8.

Since the school board announced they would be postponing a decision until Feb. 2013 and, if decided on, the transition into a middle school until 2014, Sabourin has felt more positive about the situation.

“I think the board is coming at this from an educational point of view,” he said. “I don’t get the feeling that it is about money … When the passed the motion to postpone their decision it told me they weren’t trying to run this through. I was skeptical in the fall (about their intentions) but when they voted to postpone I could see the (trustees) shoulders dip and could see that they felt the same about the rush.”

What works in Aldergrove, may not work here without proper resources

“(The middle school) model can really work but the issue for me is that we are so small that the (Aldergrove) model doesn’t line up (with our model),” said Sabourin. “What will our kids really get?”

Anderson and Naylor did point out that the Aldergrove School definitely has more resources than our students could possible get due to our size.

“This system works really well in Aldergrove but they also have access to the resources to really put all the building blocks were they need to put them to really make it work,” said Anderson.

We have different challenges here. We have a lot less to work with, a lot less room to move. So without seeing what that situation will look like for us, I can’t say whether it will work here or not. All I know is that it is beneficial for the kids who are doing it there and I think it would be beneficial here, but it all depends how it is going to work.

The trustees expressed how much they appreciated the teachers’s points of view and focus, which was different from theirs during their visit last year.

The teachers who participated will now be taking their presentations back to their schools to share with their colleagues. The information presented to the board will be included during the decision making process, which is set to happen on Tuesday Feb. 12 at the regular board meeting.

If the board chooses to go ahead with the middle school idea, it wouldn’t be enacted any earlier than September 2014.