By Kristin Fox
Jackson County is one of six school districts in the state still educating its students under the Pre/K-8th model without a separate middle school. At the recent meeting between the Jackson County Board of Education and County Commissioners, JCPS Superintendent Dr. Dana Ayers made a strong case that the time has come for the county to seriously consider the need for a traditional middle school.
The addition of a traditional middle school to the JCPS system has long been a discussion point for the school system, but now it has been added to the priority list ranked as the second highest priority behind the Fairview School’s cafeteria and additional classrooms project.
Across the district, excluding Blue Ridge School, there are 724 middle grade students in 6th through 8th grades. Student enrollment for these grades is Fairview School 268, Cullowhee Valley School 196, Smokey Mountain Elementary School 110, and Scotts Creek School 150.
Without a traditional middle school, students lack many opportunities in academics, the arts, Career and Technical Education (CTE) and athletics. The equitable access to these offerings is markedly different across the district’s current middle grades at the elementary schools.
A traditional middle school can offer advanced coursework currently not available at the elementary schools. Because of the size of JCPS’s small Pre/K-8th schools, many 7th and 8th students do not have access to the high school course Math 1, formerly known as Algebra 1, and Earth Science. Math 1 and Earth Science are considered advanced courses for middle school.
Currently, Smokey Mountain Elementary and Scotts Creek Schools both have two students taking Math 1, and those students are having to do so online through the North Carolina Virtual Public School. Fairview and Cullowhee Valley Schools have larger populations so they are able to offer Math 1 to more students in a face-to-face classroom.
“We can’t have one teacher for two math students, but we also can’t deny students the opportunity to take the advanced class so they are taking it online,” said Ayers. “They have the opportunity to take the class, but not in an equitable environment like that at the schools that have more students that can make a class.”
Additionally, Earth Science is taught for a high school credit only at Scotts Creek School. Students can take Earth Science as an 8th grader and earn one credit in this area which will count for one of their three required high school science courses.
Research shows that students perform best and retain information better when assigned to a high-quality class with a face-to-face teacher. If we had a middle school, this advanced option could be offered for all students giving all of JCPS students the same chance to have the same educational opportunities.
Academically or intellectually gifted (AIG) is different at each school as well. A middle school would help remedy this to provide differentiated and accelerated learning opportunities across multiple subjects.
Without a middle school, students with disabilities/students at risk are also at a significant disadvantage. Currently, JCPS students with disabilities and at-risk students are spread throughout the district. This means that resources and teachers for these students are also spread throughout the district. A middle school option would place all these resources in one place in order to help these students achieve individualized education plan (IEP) goals as well as provide options for students who are at risk.
Teacher collaboration, which has been linked to improved student achievement, is not possible without same grades, same subject teachers at the elementary schools. When teachers collaborate, work together collectively, co-plan, and approach problem-solving with a team environment, students perform better.
At JCPS’s Pre/K-8th schools, middle-grade teachers in each content area do not have “same-grade, same-contents” team members to collaborate with. If a certain teacher teaches a subject at one school, they are the only one that teaches that subject, so there is no collaboration except with other teachers who teach other grade levels and subjects.
“With a traditional middle school, all the district’s middle-grade teachers would be in the same building as others that teach the same subject,” said Ayers. “The ability to co-plan and collaborate would be amazing, resulting in higher student achievement.”
The lack of transition for Jackson County students is another area of concern created from not having a middle school. Currently, the only transition that JCPS students have after entering kindergarten is that of leaving 8th grade and going to high school. This has always left students as having a harder time than most other districts that have a middle school. A middle school would help with these transitions and would expose our students to additional peers, support and other adults that would be specially trained to work with those students.
“It is hard for students going for the first time into high school having been with the same group of students for so long,” said Board Member Kim Moore. “It is hard for students to make such a leap and be melted together from four different schools. Students would be more prepared and ready for high school if they could leave the elementary setting and be in a traditional middle school before high school.”
Building a strong band and music program to feed into SMHS would also be a benefit from having a middle school. Students can begin to develop their interest in music at the elementary schools, but continue at the middle school strengthening their skills before entering high school. A middle school would be a great opportunity to expand the band and choral programs. Resources and instruments could be consolidated to one middle school program to benefit more students.
Expanding CTE programs is another way additional opportunities could be created for Jackson County students at a central, traditional middle school. With the current Pre/K—8th model, CTE classes are very limited to students with all elementary schools having one STEM/STEAM (Science, technology, engineering, (arts) and mathematics class. STEM is the only CTE class offered at Scotts Creek or Smokey Mountain Elementary Schools. Students at Cullowhee Valley School also have an agricultural class, and Fairview School offers a business marketing class.
“I think if you ask our business leaders, community members and SCC folks they would say we need to feed into the CTE programs, because our work force is in dire need of the many things that come out of our CTE program. We have 54 different CTE classes at Smoky Mountain High School; how glorious it would be if we could build those CTE programs at the middle school level.”
“This is really near and dear to my heart,” said Moore. “Before I moved here, I homeschooled by children, because I wanted my children to have access to as many different things so they would know exactly what they can do after they graduate.”
“Now I want to fight for that for every student in Jackson County,” she added. “A traditional middle school would be the easiest way for it to happen. A middle school could offer students so much more and give them so many opportunities.”
“Building a middle school in the next few years, could academically be one of the biggest changes we have seen in Jackson County education,” said Moore.