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AMERICAN GRADUATE: Palatka's C.L. Overturf Sixth Grade Center

Cyd Hoskinson

There are many reasons why kids leave high school before graduation, and according to researchers those reasons are likely rooted in the sixth grade.

Why sixth grade? That’s when most Florida students make the transition from elementary to middle school.

It can be a very tough year, according to Putnam County School Superintendent Phyllis Criswell.

“They come out of elementary school, where they’ve been in classrooms with their teacher all day long, and then suddenly they’re thrown into middle school and they’re changing classes four, five, six times a day and expected to be more mature than they really are,” she said.

According to the research, students who go to middle school in the sixth grade experience a significant drop in their reading and math scores. They’re also somewhat more likely to drop out of high school.

Credit Cyd Hoskinson / WJCT
Teacher Sara Shosey goes over instructions for a scavenger hunt with her class.

There’s just too much at stake, said Criswell, to throw kids into middle school before they’re ready.

“When they get to high school, they’re earning credits to graduate and they can actually earn credits in seventh and eighth grade toward graduation so we really need a year to prepare them for all of that,” she said.

That’s why Criswell created the C.L. Overturf Jr. Sixth Grade Center in Palatka. The center opened its doors last week to nearly 400 students from all five of Palatka’s public elementary schools.

“Hopefully socially and emotionally we can do some unique things with them that we couldn’t do if we had all three grades together,” Criswell said of the center.

Students at the center are on a block schedule, meaning they have five class periods a day: reading, math and science, language arts and social studies, an elective, and a lunch hour.

According to Assistant Principal Mike Tucker, students spend half their lunch hour eating. The other 30 minutes are spent in the classroom for what Tucker called “peer mentoring.”

“And we separate those by gender,” he said of the lunch sessions, which may be used for assemblies or just to chat about issues and schoolwork.

August 23 was the first Friday of the school year, and the only pressing matter for new students was how to find their classes.

Most schools would probably just hand out maps. Here students go on a scavenger hunt, solving clues that will lead them to places like the music room, the media center and the front office. They collected signatures to prove they were there.

Reading teacher Sara Shosey stood outside her classroom, watching as groups of students learn their way around the school by learning to work together. Teamwork, she said, is what the center is all about.

Credit Cyd Hoskinson / WJCT
Students at the C.L. Overturf Jr. Sixth Grade Center participate in a scavenger hunt designed to teach them where their classes are.

“I’m the team two teacher, so all of us have the same kids,” she said. “We have 70-75 kids, and we all have the same kids, so we can sit at our meetings and talk about them.”

Not only are the teachers working with each other, they’re also working with the teachers at Jenkins Middle School, where all of Palatka’s seventh and eighth graders now go.

Library media specialist Leigh Porch said they just want to make sure the sixth graders are ready for what comes next – high school.

“I think if you can get them to ninth grade and they haven’t already gone wrong, I think they’ll be okay and I think we are. I think we’re going to save a bunch of them this year,” she said.

The center’s inaugural class will graduate in 2020, and they are expected to go on to do great things.

89.9 WJCT is participating in the American Graduate project supported by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.  The goal of American Graduate is to reverse the national drop out crisis by identifying and then addressing the factors that cause students to leave school early.

Cyd Hoskinson began working at WJCT on Valentine’s Day 2011.