JOHNSON CITY — One of 2022’s most highly anticipated changes for Johnson City Schools was the district’s shift to two middle schools; looking back, school administrators said the transition went well overall and they are pleased with the results.
In the spring of 2021, Johnson City Schools announced its decision to transition to two middle schools by returning fifth grade to the elementary schools and reconfiguring both Indian Trail and Liberty Bell as traditional middle schools. Indian Trail experienced the most complicated transition as it had previously been serving grades five and six but transitioned to serving grades six to eight in August 2022. For the elementary schools that got to keep their fifth-graders, it was “as if they never left.”
Becoming Indian Trail Middle School
“For us the transition was a major change to our school,” said Indian Trail principal Dr. James Jacobs.
As Indian Trail lost fifth grade and took on seventh and eighth, nearly 35 teachers moved out of the building and around 20 moved in. In addition, many of the remaining teachers shuffled around and began teaching subjects and grade levels that they were not familiar with.
Through all of this, Jacobs said he and his administrative team worked hard to make sure everyone was on the same page on things like school expectations and culture as well as grading and discipline practices.
“We really worked on defining our core beliefs and values through collaboration with our content teams and grade level teams,” Jacobs said. “Really just working on those structural and cultural pieces of our school, because I think a school’s culture and climate is extremely important.”
While the transition was daunting for teachers at first, Jacobs said that after implementing several positive systems to offer information and support, he feels the teachers have settled in and are working well together in their new roles. He recalled spending most of the first part of the 2022-23 academic year working closely with teacher leaders to ensure everyone was well-supported throughout the transition.
Additionally, Jacobs said he has seen the students themselves adjusting to the transition remarkably well. For this year’s sixth-graders, nothing much changed, and the seventh-graders got to stay at Indian Trail for a while longer. According to Jacobs, the eighth-graders have had the most challenging time adjusting to returning to Indian Trail after spending a year at Liberty Bell. Jacobs said he has seen those students show a great deal of maturity as the “big kids on campus” through leading by example.
“I was always concerned about students having so many transitions,” he said. “Having sixth, seventh and eighth grade (here) was the right decision by a long shot.”
“I’ve really been proud of the eighth-graders because they’ve really stepped up and shown a lot of leadership in school,” he said. “After probably the first few weeks, they got into a groove and they really made a difference. They’ve just been absolutely awesome.”
Jacobs said open and clear communication throughout the school — from the administrative team to the teachers and students — has been essential to the transition’s success.
Bringing fifth grade back to elementary schools
According to principal Carol McGill, Fairmont Elementary has adjusted particularly well to the transition.
“It’s been awesome,” she said. “People say (fifth grade) came back, but they never left, and they’ve always been ours. … We have had a long-term relationship with a lot of them because quite a few of them were here even in pre-K.”
As Johnson City Schools’ newest elementary school, McGill said Fairmont’s facilities were thankfully already well prepared to accommodate the extra class space needed for fifth grade. In addition to creating five new teaching roles for fifth grade, she said the biggest challenge was making sure incoming teachers were familiar with the school and prepared for the change.
To help prepare them for the change, the teachers were able to go out and visit the school several times during the 2021-22 school year. During these visits, the teachers were able to introduce themselves to the students and meet with academic coaches and teaching teams. These visits also helped to give the students familiar faces going into the 2022-23 school year.
McGill said that after working closely with their academic coaches and teams throughout the first semester after the transition, she is very happy to see how quickly the teachers have adjusted and become a part of the Fairmont family.
McGill said a big surprise for her was how easily the students took to the transition. She said that while there were many questions about how fifth grade at Fairmont would be compared to what they had heard about fifth grade at Indian Trail, many of the students told her they were happy they got to stay at the school for an extra year.
McGill added she is pleased to see the ways that fifth-graders have been taking on leadership roles at Fairmont this past semester.
“When they’re on their way from the buses or when they’re coming in, they will help people who are having trouble finding their way, or you know they give people advice about how to do things,” she said. “They really take that leadership role in every aspect of school culture.”
McGill said she is happy to see fifth grade back at Fairmont, and that she thinks it was the right decision for the students.
“The fewer times they have to make that kind of an adjustment … I think it’s a plus for students,” she said. “You know, they come in feeling ready to go and secure and confident and I think anytime you have that for more time is a plus as far as academic performance and socio-emotional growth.”
Both Jacobs and McGill said the overall success of the transition was largely due to the support of school communities and district leaders.
“I think the system did such a great job at the central office level with the supervisors and (the district’s superintendent) Dr. (Steve) Barnett supporting us the whole year leading up to the transition,” McGill said.