For some, it's elementary Education: Hundreds of sixth-graders, who by all accounts should be in middle schools, are forced to take classes in buildings with much younger children.

October 14, 1997|By Elaine Tassy | Elaine Tassy,SUN STAFF

At Brooklyn Park Elementary School, Michael Sanford sits squinched in a desk that almost rests in his lap. "It feels a little small for me," said the sixth-grader.

So does his low-to-the ground chair, the sinks in the open space classroom decorated with giant cut-outs of yellow pencils, and the few freedoms he and his classmates are allowed.

Michael is one of 520 sixth-graders in North Anne Arundel County trapped in elementary schools even though they, their parents, school administrators and national educational experts say middle schools are where they belong. They've been left behind because of a complicated, slow-moving school renovation process that's left them in the lurch. Michael, a 5-foot-2-inch blond, freckled boy his friends call Mickey, could have a locker instead of just a desk for his books and papers if he were in a middle school. He could change clothes for gym, select elective classes, learn from a different teacher for each subject, and pick from a selection of after-school clubs and sports.

He and his friends know other perks are available in the big middle schools. "We wouldn't have to eat with the third-graders, and we would be learning more because they have harder classes," said Michelle Laque, 11, another sixth-grader in Michael's class.

Eighty percent of elementary schools in Maryland send sixth-graders to middle schools, segregating pre-adolescents with raging hormones, new crushes and training bras, and the kindergartners in pigtails only as tall as office chairs who don't mind being lined up in single file to walk around the building.

All sixth-graders in Howard, Harford, and Carroll counties -- and almost all in Baltimore city and county -- are in middle schools. But in Arundel, 18 of 127 elementary schools have sixth grades.

Nine elementary schools in the north county communities of Pumphrey, Brooklyn Park, Linthicum and Ferndale will have about 500 sixth-graders each year for the next five years because that area's middle schools have no room for them. One building is empty, awaiting an overhaul expected to take until 2002 to complete. The second is so filled with seventh- and eighth-graders who ordinarily would be assigned to the two middle schools, there's no room for sixth-graders.

Nine other elementary schools in west Anne Arundel County have sixth-graders because the one middle school there is full. A second middle school is expected to open in September and sixth-graders should move in after that.

'Two schools'

At Brooklyn Park Elementary, Michael and his classmates listen to teacher Henry McNeil explain time differences in California, South Dakota and Israel.

One boy sports a silver hoop in his left ear, another big Nike sneakers with gel in the heel. A third who has begun dating wears an angled haircut with floppy bangs in the front and closely shaved at the sides. One girl in the class has gold sparkly nail polish and occasionally wears makeup, another girl's black short-shorts are trimmed with lace.

They are almost adults contrasted with classmates all around them: a kindergartner comes into the building timidly holding her mother's hand, and a class of first-graders walks through the media center single-file toting lunch boxes. "I don't see a straight line ," their teacher scolds.

"We're running two schools under one roof," said music teacher Tom Neuenschwander.

The sixth-graders, who are the Big Kids on the elementary campuses, enjoy some pluses. They're the best music students, they help younger students read and get on the bus safely, and some monitor the halls. They get after-lunch recess and often their schools are smaller than middle schools and located closer to home.

But an elementary school is not a middle school -- which national experts say were created to give preteens a place to grow up and change among their own.

Transition

"They're going through pubesence," said Lynn Wallich, spokeswoman for the Columbus, Ohio-based National Middle School Association. "Their peer group becomes more important than their family. They can't sit still, they're going through growth spurts, they become very physically self-conscious," she said. "Middle school provides them an opportunity to be viewed as an individual and hopefully assisted through this transition."

In more concrete terms, what works for little kids doesn't keep on working for bigger kids. At lunchtime, McNeil's taller students bend from the waist to reach low sinks. When they go to the bathroom, a student "monitor" has to go along.

They play kickball during gym in the same clothes they wear to school. "When you get out of gym, you feel hot and sweaty and you'd like to put on something cool," Michael says.

"With their bodies changing and hormones changing, you have the problem with perspiration and odor and all that," adds his mother, Janet Sanford.

"I would rather be in the middle school," said Tameka Spikes. "I don't think it's fair. You get more privileges and freedom, you have lockers to put your stuff in."

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