Like generations of high school freshmen before him, Ramon Gutierrez is feeling a little pressure with a new school year starting Wednesday. “It’s a big step, going into high school,” says the 14-year-old, a three-sport athlete who’s excited about playing football at Spanaway High School. “There are a lot more higher expectations. We’re going to have to step it up in class.”
But for Ramon and other members of the Class of 2016, there’s more than the usual new-school anxiety at play.
He and nearly 1,300 other ninth-graders throughout the Spanaway-based Bethel School District will be the first class of high school freshmen in the district since the 1970s.
While thats the last time the district had four-year high schools districtwide, there was one year in the 1990s when ninth-graders attended Bethel High School due to construction at their junior high.
Each of Bethel’s three comprehensive high schools – Bethel, Graham-Kapowsin and Spanaway Lake – is adding hundreds of students and dozens of teachers. To make space, portable classrooms were brought in and some traditional classrooms were remodeled, mostly to add science lab space.
The return to four-year high schools is part of a gradual grade reconfiguration that will transform Pierce County’s third-largest school district into a middle school/high school system.
High schools will include ninth- through 12th-graders beginning this year. Last year, ninth-graders were at the top of the junior high food chain, with seventh- and eighth-graders below.
The Bethel district plans to create middle schools for sixth-through-eighth-graders. During the transition period this year, the six former junior highs will teach only seventh- and eighth-graders.
Sixth-graders could move up to middle schools as soon as fall 2013, but no final decision has been made, district officials said. The school board plans to review that possibility in October.
The change to four-year high schools will bring Bethel into conformity with the majority of Puget Sound area school districts. Tacoma switched from junior highs to middle schools in 1987. Two years ago some Tacoma parents and teachers asked the school board to consider switching back, but the board has not acted on that request.
Puyallup, second only to Tacoma in size among Pierce County districts, recently studied a similar switch to three-year middle schools and four-year high schools. But in July, the Puyallup School Board put the brakes on the idea. Board members said their high school campuses are already too crowded, even as three-year schools.
Ramon’s mom, Amy Gutierrez, likes the changes that Bethel is making.
She said some parents worry about mixing ninth- and 12th-graders, because of the gap in age and maturity. But she said she worried more about the gap between seventh- and ninth-graders under the junior high system.
“At Spanaway Lake, they’re doing everything to make the transition a smooth one for kids,” said Gutierrez, who also has a seventh-grader at Cedarcrest Middle School this year.
Other families are on the fence.
Robert Batts, whose 14-year-old daughter Eunique will make the move to Spanaway Lake as a freshman this year, said he has concerns about the switch.
He’s worried there will be conflicts between older and younger students.
“Right now I’m not sure about it,” he said.
Eunique said she’s nervous about starting a new school, but she looks forward to participating in the music program. She played in the band at Spanaway Junior High, and she wants to continue that. She’s also hoping to join the high school choir.
When it comes to the social scene, she’s not sure what to expect: “I don’t know how it will be. I don’t know if there’s going to be a lot of drama or not.”
The high schools are trying to keep the drama to a minimum. All three campuses are participating in a program called Link Crew. It’s in schools nationwide, and it aims to help freshmen blend smoothly into high school.
Upperclassmen get training in how to mentor their younger peers and hopefully prevent the academic disasters or bullying that new students can fall prey to.
“It connects older students to younger students,” said Bryan Streleski, assistant principal at Bethel High School. “It lets them know the culture of the building and the way to be successful in high school.”
This year, Link Crew will focus on freshmen and sophomores – both newcomers to Bethel’s high schools. In coming years, it will serve only freshmen.
The high schools also are hosting separate back-to-school orientation days – one for ninth-graders and another for 10th-graders.
REASONS TO CHANGE
Educators say there are solid academic reasons for making the switch to middle schools. When ninth-graders remain in junior highs, they say, many fail to fully appreciate that the credits they earn count toward high school graduation.
If a student fails too many classes in ninth grade, the only way to make up the credits is with a lot of hard work during their last three years of high school.
“We need them to see that freshman year is important,” said Lynn Gill, principal at Graham-Kapowsin. “In high school, everybody else is talking credits and graduation.”
Bringing ninth-graders up to the high school also allows them a choice of more elective classes. And high schools are adding sports teams so ninth-graders have a chance to play.
Making the switch to four-year high schools was a lesson in logistics, with planning that got under way last year.
The biggest space crunch was at Graham-Kapowsin, the newest of the district’s high schools. The school added five portables, and some Graham-Kapowsin students (mostly freshmen and sophomores) will attend classes in a wing of Frontier Junior High, located on the same campus. That wing will be blocked off so that junior and senior high students don’t mix.
An estimated 200 teachers changed buildings, said Jennifer Bethman, assistant superintendent for secondary schools. The newly blended staffs began meeting together at the close of last school year.
One new aspect of how those teachers will work this year is called Freshman Academy. It’s a plan to support incoming ninth-graders by having a group of four core subject teachers – math, science, English and social studies – share the same group of fewer than 200 students.
The purpose, said Gill, is to have a group of teachers who can team up to both help struggling students and promote challenging course work such as Advanced Placement classes for kids who excel.
“A lot of time we get stuck on the kids at the bottom and we forget about the kids at the top,” she said.
Dianna Alexander will be one of those core subject teachers at Graham-Kapowsin this year.
She will teach roughly the same material to freshmen that she taught her ninth-graders last year at Frontier. They still will tackle “Romeo and Juliet” and “The Odyssey.” The big change will be the environment, she said.
“I think it will open the eyes of ninth-graders,” she said. “The first year counts. You are in high school. This is where the beginning starts, not in 10th grade.”
Heather Carlisle taught eighth grade science at Frontier last year, but she’s moving up to teach ninth grade at Graham-Kapowsin this year.
She said she’s seen evidence in previous years of junior high students who fail to make the connection that ninth grade counts.
“One of the things that attracted me to going to ninth grade is the chance to work with my students again,” she said. “I want to help them figure out how to do high school really well.
She also is looking forward to working with other teachers on her team.
“If I have a student who is struggling in my class, the idea is I can consult with a teacher I know,” she said.
Two teachers can look at a student’s behavior and decide together if what’s affecting him is as simple as a lack of breakfast or sleep, or if there’s something deeper going on.
District officials are hoping for a smooth start to the new school year this week. But they’re also trying to stay flexible.
If student numbers shift significantly among schools, teachers may have to move, Bethman said.
“We’re watching our final population that will come in the door on that first day,” she said. “You never know.”
Upperclassmen will play a vital role in making the transition go well.
Beyond showing the newbies how to pass algebra and where the bathrooms are located, the juniors and seniors who serve on Link Crew will be familiar faces in the hallways.
The bonds kids build through Link Crew at the start of the school year are designed to extend throughout the year – in the classroom, at school dances and at sports events.
“If you feel safe, you’re going to learn better,” Streleski said.
The high schools began recruiting upperclassmen to serve as Link Crew mentors at the close of the 2011-12 school year.
At Spanaway Lake, nearly 100 juniors and seniors spent two days in August learning mentorship skills, along with instructional games, supportive cheers and other team-building techniques.
Inside the gym, Sentinel spirit was evident. Many Link Crew trainees wore school shirts, while several donned homemade tutus featuring school colors of teal, silver and black.
Tori Casebeer, a 17-year-old senior, wore a homemade silver tiara identifying herself as a member of the class of 2013.
“I like working with younger kids,” she said. “I like having that responsibility of helping to guide these kids, to help someone else get through that first year.”
Ryan Dix, 18, is another Link Crew senior who remembers entering Spanaway Lake as a sophomore – a full year older than the freshmen coming in this year.
“If it wasn’t for football, I wouldn’t be anything in school,” he said.
Dix signed up for Link Crew because he wants other students who might not get a chance to participate in sports to feel connected to their school.
Casebeer has a younger brother who will enter Spanaway Lake as a freshman this year, so she knows what keeps incoming freshmen awake at night.
“He’s kind of scared,” she said. “And I think about that – times 400.”
MORE STUDENTS COMING
High schools in Bethel School District are getting more crowded this year, largely due to the arrival of a freshman class.
Spanaway Lake H.S.
Source: Bethel district and school administrators