Step Up eases fear of middle school

Fear of middle school eased with boot camp for sixth-graders

June 9, 2013

For many incoming sixth-grade students, the scariest part of middle school isn't the need to make new friends or the amount of homework from six different teachers.

It's lockers.

How to open them. How to find them. How to put stuff in, get stuff out and get to class in a five-minute passing period.

But for 1,500 soon-to-be San Francisco sixth-graders, that worry was alleviated last week during the district's Step Up program, a weeklong boot camp to get to know their middle schools, meet teachers, figure out where the bathrooms are and perhaps best of all, learn how to use a combination lock.

At Francisco Middle School, for example, 110 of the 150 or so incoming students received a practice padlock and learned the locker dance.

"Three times to the right, two times to the left, one time to the right," said John Yee, 11, demonstrating the dance's wax-on, wax-off circular hand motion.

Did the dance work?

Yes, Yee said, but he has already decided to bring his own lock that opens with a push-button code.
"It's faster," he said.

Rohan Smith, The Chronicle
Teacher Marcie Dobbs talks to students, who meet their teachers and learn where the classrooms and bathrooms are during the boot camp.

This is the first year the district sponsored the Step Up program at every district middle school - expanding it from a pilot program that started two years ago.

So instead of starting summer vacation, the students headed back to class at their new school.

The normally weeklong program was cut to four days this year, Tuesday through Friday, to accommodate a district-wide furlough day on Monday.

Federal and state grants for summer school covered the $160,000 in staff salaries, while the city's Department of Children, Youth and Families paid the $43,000 for various supplies and materials, including workbooks and daily planners to help keep students organized.

Scavenger hunts

During the week, students played games, like scavenger hunts to find the bathrooms, main office and library, and moved from homeroom to math class to language arts class like they will when the real school year starts.

They even had homework.

Rohan Smith, The Chronicle
Above: Seventh-graders Elizabeth Dinio (left), Emily Jiang, Aidan Zhu and David Sonnier answer incoming students' questions.

The program also helped alleviate unnecessary concerns, like the possibility of getting dumped in trash cans by upper classmen, said teacher Marcie Dobbs.

"I kind of get what it's like to be in middle school," said Lindsey Binay, 10.

Yet the weeklong program is about more than lockers and learning to move from class to class.
Students who participated in the pilot programs reported they had made great connections and felt more comfortable heading into middle school, district officials said.

And that can be key to keeping them on track.

"Relationships are just as important as academic rigor when it comes to helping students succeed," said district spokeswoman Gentle Blythe. "Giving students a good start to middle school can help keep them on track during the critical middle grades, a time when kids face a wide range of peer pressure and often start to feel disconnected from school."

Making connections

The Step Up program ensures that every child knows at least a few adults at the school when the first morning bell rings on Aug. 19.

"Elementary school is so different. They're always so nervous," said Dobbs, a seventh-grade language arts and social studies teacher. "When they start sixth grade, they'll know me."