May 20, 2021 - Why Middle School Begins in 5th Grade

Your middle school begins in fifth grade! Why is that?
That is a legitimate question. The short answer is that it is what’s best for the children, but let me elaborate a bit. James River made the choice years ago to make fifth grade part of the middle school. The decision was based upon how children develop and has helped our students make a smooth transition from the teacher-directed, homeroom environment to the more independent middle school environment.
Students in lower school spend most of the day with one teacher. The students switch rooms and teachers for certain classes like PE, but the kids are escorted to and from those classes by their homeroom teacher. Assignments, both classwork and homework, are directed by their homeroom teacher. This is a nurturing and supportive environment, as is developmentally appropriate.

In fourth grade, we start the gradual transition to the independence required of older students. Fourth graders are expected to be more responsible in keeping up with assignments and completing their work; consequently, they begin receiving grades at midyear. As part of the process, the fourth graders visit the middle school in the spring and get a brief orientation to what will become their academic home for the next four years. There is also a meeting in May with all interested parents of rising fifth graders to give a brief overview of fifth grade covering what the expectations will be and giving parents a chance to ask questions.
Children at 10 or 11 years old are ready for the increased independence of our fifth grade, which is rather like middle school lite. Children change classes independently, but most of their classrooms are close together, and the support structure is robust. As people, fifth graders are beginning to feel their way through defining who they will become. And, we have found they are more amenable to the basic training (study skills, use of agendas, etc.) necessary to become successful middle schoolers than the typical sixth grader is. In a non-pandemic year, these students also become part of advisory groups composed of 5th-8th graders. This allows the younger students to learn from their older peers, and it allows those older peers to become leaders by mentoring those in grades below them.
I have keenly felt the loss of the advisory group model this year. The pandemic has wrought so many changes, and this is one that I believe all our middle school faculty have mourned somewhat. We are all looking forward to bringing back the advisory program and regaining this piece of our “normal.” Will we be able to get back to this format in August? I’m cautiously optimistic. We so want to return to a program that has yielded wonderful results over the years.