Thomas Dale High School’s freshmen will have a new home this school year and administrators are excited about the educational opportunities that will come with the new location.
“As we move along, we’ll have more and more opportunities to do more and more things,” said Assistant Principal Mark Fowler, who will collaborate with another assistant principal on the operation of the new Thomas Dale Ninth Grade Campus.
“This is very exciting,” Thomas Dale Principal Robert Stansberry said.
The building that will house the ninth grade was home to Chester Middle School until the previous school year ended. The School Board voted last year to redistrict Chester Middle’s students to Carver and Elizabeth Davis middle schools and use the Chester Middle building to alleviate overcrowding at the high school.
Fowler said the high school has had a transition program for ninth graders in place for eight years. With the separate campus, administrators can have an increased support structure for freshmen, he said.
Smaller class sizes, team teaching and greater remediation opportunities are among the additional supports this year’s freshmen will have, he said. Other strategies, such as single-gender classes and teambuilding activities for student and teacher teams, are being considered, he said.
“Now, everyone coming to Thomas Dale in the ninth grade will have some support put in place,” Fowler said.
A class time for remediation has been built into the day, he said. At the start of the year, the period will focus on social and transition skills, he said, but as the year goes on students will “actually have remediation going on every day.” And, starting next year, students who are “struggling a little bit” will have the ability to get high school credit during the summer, Fowler said.
Teams will be on each floor of the building, he said, so core classes for each team will be in close proximity. Teachers will have a common planning period, so all of a team’s teachers can meet with particular parents or students at one time, Stansberry said.
The ninth grade campus will have “wonderful teachers,” many of whom have worked with the transition program before, Fowler said. Guidance counselor Samantha Brown works incredibly hard, Fowler said, and Stansberry added that guidance counselor Brian Curtis has done studies on single-gender classes and how it’s not considered “cool” among young men and boys to get high grades.
“The whole team should be very successful,” Fowler said.
Last week, Bermuda District School Board Member Marshall Trammell said ninth grade is one of those crucial school years. Aside from making the transition to a new school, students also begin earning high school credits in earnest, he said. It’s very important to be able to help students work through that transition, he said.
On Monday, Fowler said it’s imperative that students make it through ninth grade the first time. If they don’t, their chances of graduating drop to something like one in six, he said.
“It is the year we lose most kids,” he said. “If you can get them through the ninth grade, all the research shows they’ll probably stick with it.”
For a long time, there was no real help for students transitioning from middle to high school, Fowler said. Thomas Dale’s existing transition program has resulted in higher grade point averages, fewer referrals, higher passing rates on state Standards of Learning exams and increased freshman participation in school life, he said.
“And having it over here [in the Chester Middle building] is going to make it so much nicer,” Stansberry said.
During the renewal of Thomas Dale, the school’s ninth grade was moved to the building that now houses Community High School; the site was known as Thomas Dale’s West Campus. The students there had a very positive experience, Trammell said.
“Was everything perfect? No. … But it gave them an opportunity to be able to work with the ninth grade as a whole and separately from what I call the ‘upper class mania,’” Trammell said.
Fowler, who was at the West Campus, said disciplinary problems decreased when the ninth graders were separated from the upperclassmen. Freshmen were no longer having to act out to be accepted by older students, he said.
Having fewer people in the halls was also helpful on the West Campus.
“The traffic, just by its nature, is going to be a distraction,” he said. The halls at the ninth grade campus will be relatively clear, he said. Stansberry added that the space opened up at the main campus by moving the freshmen is “going to make a huge difference over there.”
Fowler said recent months had been a “difficult time for everyone,” as teachers, parents and students adjusted to moving to different schools for the coming year.
“What we’re looking for now is the healing period,” he said. “As Thomas Dale, we want to do the best for the kids.”
Stansberry said he thought there was support for the ninth grade campus in the community, but there was still a need for another high school at this end of the county.
“I think it’s fair to say that one day this will be Chester Middle School again,” he said. “We don’t want to change the Chester feel.”
Much of the blue – one of Chester Middle’s colors – in the building will remain, he said, and “we’re going to do some preservation of CMS memorabilia.”
Teachers and administrators will “do as much as we can” to make the ninth graders, especially those who are attending ninth grade in the same building they finished middle school in, feel that they are part of Thomas Dale High School, Fowler said. Stansberry said the high school experience would markedly different than middle school.
“They’ll walk around and have some privileges they haven’t had before,” he said of the ninth graders. “They’ll be treated like young adults.”
A lot of work has been done, but there’s still more to do, Fowler said. Teachers have moved, as has some of the equipment and books that will be needed for ninth grade classes, he said. At this point, bus service between the two campuses is planned for every period, Stansberry said, and schedules have been adjusted to allow for that.
“Obviously, there’s going to be a teething in period,” Fowler said. “Any first opening of a school, I always liken it to a wedding. … Anything can happen. … I think we’re in a good position.”