Sixth Grade

A Year of Physical, Emotional Passage

Psst! Will Ferguson, left, passes a note to Matt Wetmore. Sixth-graders are
Psst! Will Ferguson, left, passes a note to Matt Wetmore. Sixth-graders are "wonderful, creative and curious, but they are still kids, trying to grow up," says Assistant Principal Mary Beth Pelosky at Swanson Middle School. (James A. Parcell - Twp)
By Valerie Strauss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 7, 2005

Last in an occasional series about the grades that provide the building blocks of a child's education.

The sixth-grade boy burst into the school's main office with brown hair flying, school binder clutched to his chest, eyes watery from reluctantly spilled tears. In an emotional burst, he told Assistant Principal Mary Beth Pelosky that a teacher "misheard me and thought I said a bad word which I didn't and sent me here."

Moments before, he had been happily writing an assignment about why sixth grade had been great. Now he was counting backward to reclaim control of his emotions -- and in no time, he would be back in class, recovered, as if nothing had happened.

"That's sixth grade," said Pelosky, of Swanson Middle School in Arlington. "The students are wonderful, creative and curious, but they are still kids, trying to grow up, and that makes them very, very emotional."

Up, down, all around: It's the state of sixth-graders -- and sixth grade, kids and adults say. It is a weird year, full of physical, emotional, social and logistical transitions that schools meet with wildly varying levels of success.

Parents see their children, on the edge of adolescence, often like strangers, exuberant one minute, crushingly sad the next. Kids say it is a time when things are far more different than ever. "Everybody is going crazy," said Rebecca Lesher, 12, a sixth-grader at Mann Elementary School in the District.

Translation: They become moody, rebellious, hormone-driven. Kids are friends one minute, enemies the next. More students talk back to their teachers than before, and peers matter more than ever. Kids who barely uttered a word in fifth grade are the class clowns in sixth. And everyone is just "so awkward," recalls Julia Penn, 18, who just graduated from Montgomery Blair High School in Montgomery County and remembers sixth grade as the "worst."

It's not just students and parents who find sixth grade so baffling: Educators can't agree on where sixth-graders belong. Consequently, they can be found as the biggest and toughest kids in elementary schools with grades K-6, or near the top in K-8 schools, or at the bottom of 6-8 middle schools, or near the bottom of 5-8 schools.

There also are scores of schools where sixth is the only grade and the school is seen "as the first step in the big, bad world," said Rod Coykendall, principal of the Derby (Kan.) Sixth Grade Center.

"The way we have it set up is certainly challenging for the kids," said Mary Pat McCartney, counselor at the K-5 Bristow Run Elementary School in Prince William County.

What to do with emerging adolescents has been the subject of a decades-old debate that shows no sign of abating. Early 20th-century American schools placed sixth grade squarely in elementary school, which ended in eighth grade. That started to change after the end of World War I when more schools began ending elementary schools with sixth grade.

In the latter part of the century, millions of sixth-graders were moved to middle schools, which most often had grades 6 through 8. Some changed their academic and social programs and became successful; others, especially in urban areas, became crowded and did nothing to adapt to student needs. The schools developed reputations as a weak link, with out-of-field teachers generally teaching a larger percentage of students in the middle grades (grades 5 through 9) than in high school, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

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