Students, staff adapt to Liberty’s new grade system

08/20/2013 12:00 AM

08/21/2013 11:27 AM

It’s probably for the best. Freshmen in Liberty’s two high schools mostly see the advantages in the district’s giant shuffling of grades.

But 14-year-old James Kennedy is quick to point out, on behalf of all ninth graders, that they were robbed of their turn as top dogs of the now-disbanded junior high schools.

No longer are eighth and ninth graders grouped in a pair of junior high schools. The ninth grade has been pushed on to the high schools. And four buildings that had been split between middle schools for sixth and seventh grades, and junior highs for eighth and ninth are all middle schools serving sixth through eighth grades.

There are many complicated reasons for the switch, and a lot of logistics had to be engaged. But this is what it means for James and his pals:

“In the eighth grade, we were the underdogs of the school,” he said during his first week at Liberty High School. “We were going to be back on top (as ninth graders in junior high), but instead we’re kicked back to the bottom for two years in a row.”

He shook his head. Shrugged. Then smiled.

The big shift actually makes sense, he and other ninth graders agreed.

Liberty High School Principal April Adams said she and her staff have worked in preparation for the start of the school year to make families understand the opportunities that will come from the switch.

It wasn’t easy at the junior highs to clearly impress on ninth graders that they were taking courses that would begin accumulating their credits for graduation, she said.

And the intricate high school building resources behind programs like the Project Lead the Way engineering classes, robotics competitions and the opportunities for advanced placement courses couldn’t reach the old junior highs, she said.

And the ninth graders don’t have to pile onto shuttle buses after school anymore to reach their high school sports and debate teams as in years past.

“There’s definitely a hum here,” Adams said.

The switch has longed seemed necessary for academic and instructional reasons, said Scott Carr, the administrator who led the three-year process of switching the schools.

The logistics of getting there have been daunting, including some boundary changes and a large reshuffling of staff as well, Carr said.

But it needed to be done. It’s not as if Liberty had gone to the middle school/junior high set-up for academic reasons in the first place, Carr said.

In the early 1990s, the district was dealing with rapid growth that was overwhelming its elementary schools. Back then, elementary schools served grades one through six, and the junior high schools served grades seven through nine.

The district decided to help relieve the pressure by pulling sixth grade out of the elementary schools and seventh from the junior highs to create middle schools. The district had Liberty Middle and Liberty Junior, and then the two South Valley campus schools.

The schools weren’t aligned into a feeder system, Carr said. So not only were ninth graders not joined with their high school mates, but students within each middle and junior high school were all bound for different schools.

The new alignment has been established with a clear feeder system, Carr said.

Liberty Junior High became Heritage Middle School, and South Valley Junior High became Discovery Middle.

Liberty Middle and Discovery now feed to Liberty High School, while South Valley and Heritage middle schools feed to Liberty North High School.

Getting to that point though with balanced enrollment between the high schools required some boundary changes — an emotionally charged task that was hard on some families that would have to change high school allegiances.

The district has eased that transition by allowing high school seniors and juniors caught up in a boundary change to remain in their same high school if they wish.

It has been a big change for students and for teachers. Because both last year’s eighth and ninth graders have moved into the high schools, roughly half of the students in the high schools are new this year.

And the two former junior high schools have students who are all new to the buildings.

Some 250 teachers were redistributed among all six buildings, and many had to adjust to new grade levels, Carr said.

The schools had transition programs, gave new students a chance to get familiar with their schools, and set up mentorships with the upperclassmen.

Liberty High School freshman Morgan Basye, 14, was anxious.

“I was scared,” she said. “It’s a huge school. I didn’t think I was going to get used to it.”

There are some emotional pangs as well, she said, because she had friends at her junior high school who live in Liberty North High School’s boundary and are now separated from her and her Liberty High School friends.

But the first week mostly went well, she said. And Cheyenne Bledsoe, 15, agreed.

“It’s getting a little more comfortable,” she said. “We’re finding our way around.”

Carr, the principal at Heritage Middle School, hopes the transition carries on smoothly for the entire district.

“Everybody’s been positive,” he said. “Everyone’s been supportive.”

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