By Anna B. Mitchell  

AUGUST 26, 2009 8:32 a.m. Comments (0)

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Miriam Rios looked over the room of sixth-graders during her daughter’s orientation at Mauldin Middle School last week.

“You want to know what kinds of kids they will be around. You know, you wonder,” Rios said. “I see no worries.”

Last week thousands of sixth-graders attended classes for the first time as middle-schoolers. During orientations held all over Greenville County last week they still hovered near their parents. In two years, they will be taller, entering puberty, getting boy/girl crazy, developing an attitude and figuring out who they are.

It’s a dramatic change in two years, and Greenville schools welcomed the kids with rules to contain the physical, emotional, academic and social extremes these kids will soon be subjected to.

Teachers and administrators were posted in every hall on the first day of classes at Greer Middle. When they spotted a confused sixth-grader, they called out.

“You don’t have to run. You won’t be marked late today,” Principal Scott Rhymer said. He spotted a girl holding a violin. “You’re going the wrong way. Strings is down that hall.”

Later, a group of girls sitting on bleachers in the Greer Middle gym compared schedules and asked about each others’ teachers. They stopped to applaud as Rhymer got up to speak.

“There are three things we don’t put up with in this building,” Rhymer told them. “The first thing is fighting. Fights are not going to happen in this school. I call a fight pushing and kicking. That will get you 10 days suspension.”

Rhymer said he also wouldn’t put up with disrespect toward teachers and any cell-phone use. Assistant Principal Lenny Kindall took over the lecture and spent the next 25 minutes listing every rule at the school and a correlating matrix of punishments for violations.

Tardiness, talking too much, rude language, dress-code violations – all can earn detention, Kindall said. Public displays of affection, arguing, disobeying a teacher’s order and bullying – that will earn a suspension.

“Your education is important to me,” Kindall said. “The second most important thing to me is how you conduct yourself and treat others.”

A few kids snuck in quiet yawns and fidgets but continued watching him.

For the 11-year-olds entering middle school for the first time this month, the differences on the outside are obvious: lockers, changing classes, a real gymnasium.

But the biggest changes for these students – most of them social and emotional – are yet to come. The first clue: upper classmen with peach fuzz on their faces. In middle school, parents become far less important than friends, cliques start to form, yet kids – who still want to be appreciated for who they are as individuals – also don’t want to stick out, said Clemson University professor Lienne Medford.

Rios’ daughter, Judith, played a clapping game nearby with her best friend, Grace, from elementary school.

“Bo bo ski watten totten, na na, na na boom boom boom,” the girls sang.

Rios looked at the girls, who’d held hands during an orientation tour.

“She says she’s nervous how things are going,” Rios said. “Especially the lockers. She’s worried about the numbers. We were going to buy a lock for her to practice.”

Some of the students Rios saw wandering the halls for sixth-grade orientation at Mauldin Middle were well over five feet tall while others barely cleared four feet.

These kids’ brains are growing and changing rapidly, and at the same time, academics are far more important – with real homework assigned and real grades at stake. Medford said children at age 11 take words at face value and are concrete thinkers. Abstract thought comes as they approach 13, and they also begin to figure out who they are. For those who become isolated and confused, dropping out of school starts to become a possibility.

“You decide if you are an art or math or music person,” Medford said. “If parents can see that and encourage it, it’s terrific.”

Rhymer reassured sixth-graders herded into the school gymnasium on Aug. 19 everyone is nervous. They all raised their hands when he asked if they were. He said he understands because he has a daughter their age. Then he leveled with them.

“It’s not easy passing these classes,” he said. “I promise you, you’re going to have to work. Make sure you write down all your assignments.”

The biggest favor parents can do for children to prepare for middle school is encouraging them to read – comic books, novels, magazines or whatever, Medford said. This will help them to focus and retain information – tough for the emerging generation of multi-tasking, short-attention-span Google kids.

“Sixth-graders are children,” said Medford, a middle school specialist. “Although there are outliers on both ends, by the time they reach eighth grade, they are young adults.”

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