Jump Start teachers show new middle-schoolers the ropes

Sixth-graders get a low-pressure preview of what lies ahead

9/2/2017 | TACOMA, Washington

Boy launching rocket
Students built soda-bottle rockets to learn about water pressure
​ ​​​​​​​​​​​ ​​​​​​​​
Kristina VanderHorst sits at the front of her classroom, speaking to about a dozen sixth-graders. They sit rapt, not fidgeting, carefully copying down notes from the screen. Of the many lessons the math teacher will give this school year, few will have as much immediate, crucial application as this one, and her students know it.

They’re learning how to open a locker.  

The lesson is part of Jump Start at Giaudrone Middle School, a four-day program set up to help students make the transition from the familiar surroundings of elementary school to middle school. Each of Tacoma Public Schools’ middle schools runs its own  Jump Start, and the district’s elementary and high schools run the program for new kindergarteners and ninth-graders. Staff at each school decide how to run their own Jump Start program.

VanderHorst gives each student a padlock and its combination and they set to work, spinning dials carefully. A few kids have their locks open after just a few tries. Others need more time and some extra attention, but before long the room fills with the sound of locks clicking open as kids’ faces break into triumphant smiles.

Jump Start exists for moments like this. It gives students a low-pressure environment to face some of the challenges of starting a new school that can overwhelm a 12-year-old. 
“It’s a week of training on how to go to middle school,” said Stephanie Sheppard a band teacher at Giaudrone who assisted with Jump Start this year. 

This year’s middle school Jump Start programs took place on the mornings of Aug. 20-24. It included breakfast and lunch for the students. At Giaudrone, about 45 percent of the incoming sixth-grade class attended.

Those four mornings at school bring a lot of benefits for both students and staff. ​ ​​​​
Rocket taking off
Science teacher Hailey Knettles launches a water rocket with Jump Start students
​ ​​​
The kids get a chance to try out some of the unfamiliar parts of middle school before the halls fill with hundreds more students, including many much larger than the new sixth-graders. Giaudrone’s Jump Start program runs in class periods, so the new students can practice navigating the halls between classes. One of the classes includes a scavenger hunt around the building to help acquaint them with the space. And, of course, they practice the complicated back and forth of opening a locker. This all gives the students an advantage when school starts a couple weeks later.

“I look to all of these students to come in and be leaders,” VanderHorst said. “These students know the ins and outs and have the knowledge to be leaders in their classrooms.”

“A lot of these kids become the school’s advocates,” said Giaudrone Principal Billy Harris. “They say to their peers, ‘I’m excited to be at Giaudrone.’”

In addition to lessons on the details of attending middle school, Jump Start at Giaudrone included some academic subjects to engage the kids’ minds and get them excited to learn. Teachers Hailey Knettles and Benjamin Lee taught about the science of rockets and led the students to build and decorate their own rockets made of two-liter soda bottles. On the final day, they launched the rockets using water and air pressure outdoors. 

Just as important as what the students learn are the relationships they form, with staff members and with each other. 

“I like to get to know the students before they start school and make sure they know there’s someone here they can trust,” VanderHorst said. “It’s important to me that they know they belong here.”