FMS to reshuffle eighth-graders to increase their social connections

— Enterprise file photo by Michael Koff 
At a “Mix It Up” lunch at Farnsworth Middle School last fall, students were encouraged to make new social connections by varying where they sit in the cafeteria. Now the school is poised to “mix up” all of the eighth-graders in the middle school every year.

GUILDERLAND — Starting next year, the eighth-grade teams at Farnsworth Middle School, which have been together since the students entered the school in sixth grade, will be completely reshuffled in an effort to ensure that, in their final year of middle school, they have as many social connections as possible before heading to the high school.

Michael Laster, principal of FMS, gave an informational presentation about the change to the school board last month. He will talk about it again at the Farnsworth Parent-Teacher Association meeting on April 8 at 7 p.m., he told The Enterprise.

Some students now arrive at the first day of high school to find that they know no one in their class, Laster said. This is especially true, he said, for students who don’t participate in activities such as sports, music, or theater.

“I think we have seen students who struggle when they transition to the high school,” Laster told The Enterprise.

When Farnsworth was built in 1968, middle schools were a new concept. The building was constructed to have separate houses, or schools within a school, so that students coming from the district’s five elementary schools could come together in new learning communities without being thrown into a mass of unfamiliar students.

Laster told The Enterprise that students’ connections currently increase in sixth and seventh grades, but not in eighth grade.

In sixth grade, Laster said, students are placed into teams of about 50 children, and the number of their connections doubles, since their elementary classrooms have a maximum of about 25 students. Sixth-grade teams consist of one classroom whose teacher is in charge of the humanities and another whose teacher is in charge of math and science, the principal explained.  

In seventh grade, the connections double again, he said, as two sixth-grade teams are combined to make each seventh-grade team. Each seventh-grade team has four core teachers, each in charge of a single subject — English, social studies, math, and science.

“The idea is that in eighth grade you’re going to potentially get to meet 75 new kids,” Laster said of the change that is coming in the 2019-20 school year.

With this change, Laster said, teams of teachers who talk every day about the students they teach — their accomplishments and their needs — will be able to lend extra support to students who may need it through the eighth-grade transition.

Another positive change, Laster said, is the ability for students to reconnect with friends they have known in earlier years but never been in class with.

Enrollment in eighth grade this year stands at 370; next year it will be 358, Laster said.

Each year, Laster said, about a third of the eighth-graders begin to take accelerated math — about 125 students this year — so about 50 to 100 students are moved to different teams to make this possible. Students who are moved may feel stigmatized, Laster said; by changing all students at the same time, this will no longer an issue.

Farnsworth Middle School is divided into four “houses,” which Laster refers to as “four small learning communities.” Students take all of their core classes with members of the same “team” in their house. Traditionally they have also taken “specials” such as music, art, physical education, and family consumer sciences with students from their house, although not necessarily from their team.  

Currently, next year’s reshuffling is being piloted by mixing eighth-graders from two houses — Mohawk and Tawasentha — in art and other non-core classes, which has been a great success, Laster said.

The idea of the schoolwide reshuffle was originally raised by the middle-school building cabinet, as a way to prepare students for the transition to high school. Middle-school students were surveyed, including children who changed to different houses in eighth grade and others who did not. Additionally, students through 11th grade were also surveyed for their thoughts about their social connections and their experiences transitioning to high school.

Of the current pilot program, Laster said, “The students like it, and teachers like it. I can see new friendships emerging.”

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