by Georgia Charter Schools Association
The 2017-2018 school year marked the start of Westside Atlanta Charter School’s Middle Grades Program. The program serves fifth and sixth graders this year and will eventually go through the eighth grade. The program has been part of the school’s vision since Westside Atlanta opened its doors in 2013. Since that time, the school has grown a grade level every year.
Prior to starting the Middle Grades Program, the school brought in two Teachers in Residence to help create the program and its curriculum from the ground level. The planning included input from students and visits to numerous local schools to learn about best practices and various models.
When planning, educators focused on how to make students still feel like they were at Westside but looked for ways to acknowledge students were older than those in the elementary grades. The program seeks to give middle grades students more independence than the younger students served by the school. Unlike their elementary peers, middle grades students have at least three teachers who focus on areas like science, math and humanities.
“The students like transitioning among the different classes. They feel like they have more freedom,” said Principal Delana Reeves. “There really is a difference in Kindergarten through the fourth grade. Fifth grade for us felt like a very natural transition into doing things in a different way and to offer additional options to students.”
As part of the process, the school created small single gender groups that students take part in during the morning. These groups allow educators to take on more of an advisory role. Students in younger grades attend a morning meeting with their entire class.
“Middle grades really are the beginning of students’ secondary education,” said Emily Boatright, Dean of Middle Grades for Westside Atlanta Charter School. “It’s taking that transition and trying to teach them to be more responsible, self-sufficient and pushing them to do things that they normally wouldn’t do.”
The Middle Grades Program also offers accelerated classes in subjects like math, science and Spanish. Middle grades students who take advantage of the accelerated classes can leave the school with a high school credit in math, science and Spanish.
“In areas like math, it allows students to move into calculus by the time they are seniors in high school,” said Boatright It also frees up general requirement spaces and allows students to take classes in high school that they are really passionate about.”
Another unique aspect of the program is time devoted once a week to what the school calls “Genius Hour.” During Genius Hour, students stay with their core teachers and work on a project that they are passionate about. Fifth graders focus on their potential career paths. Students can work on the projects in class and at home. Once the projects are completed, they present to the entire class near the end of the school year.
“Whether the student ends up in the career field or not, it’s about going through that investigative process to learn what tools and skills they need to achieve their goal,” said Reeves. “This Project-Based Learning and design thinking integrates what students have been learning for years in the classroom. It puts a student in the driver seat and allows educators to provide feedback and serve as facilitators.
Middle grades students are also given the opportunity to take part in real-world experiences such as field trips. Students in grades K-4 also go on numerous field trips but typically stay in the Atlanta area. The school allows fifth and sixth graders to take trips farther away. Fifth graders will travel to Savannah for the second year, and sixth graders will take a multi-day trip to Washington D.C.
Reeves and Boatright are pleased with how the year has gone, but they say it did not come without challenges. The program’s first master schedule had a lot of starts and stops and numerous breaks. Reeves and Boatright said it seemed wonderful in theory, but it just didn’t fit in with the school’s current space constraints. As a result, administrators made adjustments to the schedule including offering fewer breaks and making one long break directly after lunch. The ability to make adjustments is one of the things Reeves and Boatright are grateful for.
“If there needs to be a shift, we’re small and flexible enough that we don’t need to continue doing something simply because it’s always been done that way,” said Boatright.
During the next school year, Westside Atlanta Charter School will temporarily move to the former Archer High School building. The building is approximately one mile from where the school is located now. The move will take place while a new upper campus for the school is constructed at its current location. School leaders are looking forward to the transition because it offers additional space and more opportunities for unique programming.
As the first year of the school’s Middle Grades Program nears completion, Reeves offers this advice to other schools who plan to start a Middle Grades program in the future:
“Don’t get discouraged. Plan, and work your plan. If it doesn’t work, adjust your plan,” said Reeves.
The first group of students is scheduled to complete Westside Atlanta Charter School’s Middle Grades Program in the spring of 2020.