Learning from the Middle: Bridging Lower and Middle Schools

Before the middle school’s Mission Campus opened in January 2017, the Somerset Campus operated junior kindergarten through seventh grade. In fall 2018, the Board decided to move the fifth grade back to Somerset Campus due to the Mission Campus’ building capacity for classrooms and aim to increase the number of middle school students enrolled per grade for 6-8. This move provided an opportunity for us to be even more intentional about how to bridge the lower and middle school experiences.

My years of launching, designing, and redesigning over three schools in the Bay Area have taught me to not oversimplify solutions and examine the situation from multiple perspectives. In December 2018, I convened a focus group of educators to propose plans and programs to design the fifth grade year at the lower school to be a transitional and leadership year.

Using David Kelly’s design thinking, my go-to framework to devise innovative and reliable solutions, I gathered information through in-person interviews, surveys, and parent forums from members of our community who had previously experienced fifth grade at Somerset as well as current fifth graders at Mission to assess what worked and did not work. The fifth grade focus group listened, observed, inquired, and empathized with students, teachers, and parents on the location of the new classrooms and the impact of the move and restructuring.

After collecting data, we were able to define the essential components needed for fifth grade to be an impactful transitional year. We moved onto ideating and identifying our priorities. For example, smaller advisory groups of 6-10 students (akin to the middle school) rather than starting the day's lessons in homeroom cohorts of 15-18 was preferred to give students more voice, choice, and support for deeper group discussions.

Since independence is a core value of middle school and the fifth graders would be the oldest

students at the lower school, leadership seemed to be a fitting area of development. My approach to leadership training is through emotional literacy and self-reflection. Being aware of one’s emotions and learning how to manage them are foundational since successful leadership involves effectively empathizing, collaborating, supporting, understanding, and inspiring others. The school counselor Kory and I crafted a social and emotional learning class with leadership objectives and inspired by frameworks from Yale's Center for Social and Emotional Learning and Daniel Goleman's research on emotional intelligence. This SEL class would be taught by us once a week. Furthermore, the fifth graders would be given opportunities to present current events at school-wide community meetings rather than solely at their grade level. They would also enjoy other unique leadership experiences, such as weeklong overnight training at The Mosaic Project to work on assertive communication skills, empathy, peace and conflict resolution, and tactics for building an inclusive community culture among their peers.

A hallmark of the middle school experience is course selection where students have more freedom to choose their academic coursework. To emulate this experience, the specialist teachers (drama, garden, music, art) devised their elective classes into several different themes to give the fifth graders various options to choose from. That is, each fifth grader chooses two theme-based elective classes (lasting 45-minutes each) in art, drama, music, or garden to take two times a week for approximately ten weeks (one trimester). In so doing, the students can deep dive into a specific area of interest, prioritize learning goals, practice course selection, and at times manage their disappointment if they do not receive their first choice. Since Spanish classes are grouped by levels rather than grades at the middle school, students take an assessment at the end of their fourth grade year to test into their Spanish cohort for fifth grade.

Lockers instead of cubbies for storage seemed to be a significant marker for students to feel a greater sense of maturity. Study hall (instead of choice time) where students learn to manage their own time and prioritize their workload seemed to be an effective way to instill self-efficacy and greater independence.

To translate our ideas into the real world, we prototyped. This involved devising classrooms and

administration office blueprints, mocking up new schedules to ensure smooth flow and transition, and mapping out the elective course selection process. In April 2019, the fifth grade team was assembled. In May 2019, a group of parent, student, and staff volunteers led by a local artist painted a bright mural outside the hangars over the long Memorial Day weekend to stir excitement about the change among our children, especially our soon-to-be fifth graders. In June 2019, rooms at Somerset were reorganized to make space for two new classrooms. In July 2019, contractors erected an indoor wall between hangars three and four to make the large unit into two classrooms, installed an outdoor wall to create a private snack and lunch space for the fifth grade community, and renovated the lockers. The new classrooms were furnished with state-of-the-art projector and equipped with furniture. In August 2019, the fifth grade educators finalized the schedule and programming and designed their rooms.

The real test occurred when we opened the doors for 2019-2020 school year. After the first few days of school, a fifth grade student stopped me to share feedback on his way to an after-school enrichment class. He shared, “I don’t want to be too, you know …. but things are going really well so far.” He couldn’t quite find the words for his experience, so I asked, “Are you optimistic?” He responded with cautious optimism: “Yes, I guess you could say that, but I don’t want to get too excited just yet.”

A big change such as moving the fifth grade back to Somerset could have rattled the community and disrupted the lower school. However, our collaborative spirit and can-do attitude shined through to ensure a successful and positive change.

As David Kelley states in his book Creative Confidence, “belief in your[/our] creative capacity lies at the heart of innovation.” It was our collective imagination and commitment to collaboratively work together, volunteer extra hours, and share creative solutions that successfully launched fifth grade at Somerset. Big shout-out to the fifth grade team -- Jon, Angela, Sarah, and Beth -- for rising up to the challenge and cultivating unique learning experiences for our students. And heartfelt gratitude to our community for contributing in so many ways that are too numerous to list.

For a closer look at fifth grade, please see the classroom schedule, elective offerings, and week ahead page.

#LowerSchool #FifthGrade


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Lower School Campus: 450 Somerset Street, San Francisco, CA 94134 | Tel: 415-467-3700 
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