It’s elective day in fifth grade, and the Forensic Science class is seated in Corbett Prep’s Middle School lab with mysterious red vials and tiny plastic trays for a lesson on blood type analysis.
The synthetic blood will react differently depending on the blood type when mixed with an antiserum, so the fifth graders carefully drop the substances into the trays and log whether it curdles or remains smooth. The students are unsure at first what they’re seeing and what it means. And then as the reaction occurs, they excitedly call out their observations and invite their friends to come take a look.
The class, one of several electives fifth-grade students can take with middle school teachers, is filled with engaging activities and interesting lessons. But it also serves a bigger role, making middle school less mysterious and more inviting, as the preteens gain familiarity with the building’s classrooms, teachers and routines.
The Transition to Middle School: Easing into Big Changes
Until this year, fifth grade marked the last year of Corbett Prep’s elementary program before the students crossed the street to middle school. But last spring, Corbett Prep administrators saw an opportunity for change.
After studying the research and talking to other schools, they decided to bring fifth grade into the middle school this fall. It would become a bridge year—a little elementary, a little middle.
“It feels so natural,” says Middle School Principal Jennifer Jagdmann.
The change makes sense developmentally.
Early adolescence starts around age 10 or 11, approximately fifth grade, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. As young adolescents, fifth graders begin to go through cognitive and physical changes that are more similar to older classmates than students in the younger elementary school grades.
A good middle school knows how to address those developmental changes, the Association for Middle Level Education reports, and can design educational programs that meet those unique needs of this age group.
Establishing Corbett Prep’s fifth grade as a transitional year built a safer learning environment for these young adolescents. The fifth graders now have access to social-emotional resources better aligned with their needs along with the expertise of the middle school staff.
The bridge concept also allowed Corbett Prep to elevate the fifth-grade experience. Fifth-grade teachers work closely with middle school subject teams to develop a curriculum progression beneficial to all middle school students.
Higher-level classes are available to fifth graders as well, including more science periods and an earlier start to Spanish as an academic class that could help some students earn Spanish 2 high school credit in eighth grade. A flex period introduces them to the middle school’s executive functioning and study skills curriculum.
Some aspects of fifth grade have stayed the same, however. The students still participate in specials classes, such as physical education, Application Lab and drama/dance.
They can also join the fourth- and fifth-grade chorus, which produces a spring musical annually. And they are called upon to act as leaders of the elementary school, helping in the car line in the morning and acting as buddies with PreK.
Fifth graders also have their own protected space, a suite with a separate entrance from the older students. The same fifth-grade teaching team covers most of their classes.
The students greeted the changes with excitement, and teacher Mary Youngblood says she and her colleagues appreciate being part of the middle school team. “I feel like we belong,” she says.
But the best benefit will come next year, when the current fifth-grade class enters sixth grade. The students will have enough familiarity with the building’s layout and teacher expectations that it should lower any stress about middle school.
Teachers hope their bridge period will pay off in a smooth transition, and the new sixth graders will enter the school year ready for increased responsibilities and possibilities.
*Presented by Corbett Prep | Originally published in the January 2024 issue of Tampa Bay Parenting Magazine.