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In school, as in life, there are milestones that often prove overwhelming in the sheer immensity of the change.
Take, for example, two of the most pivotal grades in a school career, the sixth and ninth grades.
There you are, in a new school, thrown in, often, with new schoolmates; you don’t know where your classes are, you don’t know where your locker is, or the lunchroom, or the library.
They say the work’s going to be a lot harder and the teachers are no joke. There’s a new dress code you haven’t quite got worked out and you’ve heard horrible stories of how upperclassmen treat freshmen.
It can be enough to make some students want to run and hide.
Helping alleviate those kinds of worries is exactly the reason why hundreds of Lancaster County sixth- and ninth-graders headed back to school early on Friday, Aug. 17, for orientation, a voluntary half day set aside for settling in.
"For sixth-graders, this will be their first year in middle school," said Jonathan Phipps, director of secondary education for Lancaster County School District.
"They're leaving a place where they're the oldest and coming to a place where they're the youngest and on the bottom of the totem pole,” Phipps, a former middle school and Buford High School principal said.
“And it’s the same for the ninth-graders,” he said. “They may think they know everything, but they’re still kids, really. They have a hundred questions and are half lost. So this is really just something we do to help the kids.”
At South Middle School, the day was already in full swing by 10:30 a.m., with 180 of the school’s 208 incoming sixth-grader class learning the middle school ropes.
Nathan Reed, 11, light-haired and freckle-faced, said he’s not nervous, but the way he stood with his hands buried in his pockets, the way his eyes wandered and his smile never quite stuck full-on, betrays him.
“It’s kinda’ cool,” Nathan said, “touring the school, going around and getting to see all we get to do.”
He said the lockers are the thing he’s noticed that seem to be the biggest difference between middle and elementary school. Nathan said he’s pretty sure things are going to be tougher, but he’s not worried about that, really.
Nathan said there’s three things he looks forward to most about being in middle school; activities, clubs and, “getting to stay up later at night.”
South Middle School Principal Joyce Crimminger said the most important thing for her and her staff this time of year is to make incoming middle schoolers feel comfortable in their surroundings so they’ll be ready to roll come Monday morning.
She said it’s also good for teachers because they can get the time-consuming first day necessities out of the way, like handing out books, schedules, pad locks and showing students how to open their lockers, so that Monday everybody can get down to work.
“Orientation day is not about rules, or homework. It’s about getting to know each other and getting excited about starting school Monday,” Crimminger said. “
“I think it’s going to be a good year. Things have been a little crazy this summer,” she said. “But our theme this year is ‘Together We Will’. And I think that together we will make this the best year ever.”
Excitement verses first-day jitters
At Buford High School, Betty Ingram had a wide smile on her face as she followed teacher Jennifer Mills through the hallways Friday morning and chatted with friends.
Betty, 14, listened carefully as Mills, who chairs the school’s English Department and teaches in the BHS Ninth Grade Academy, served as a tour guide to hopefully give her a added level of comfort in her freshman year.
Mills took Betty and a group of about 20 others students to the media center, the cafeteria, main office, nurse’s office. One of the student records stacked in the floor by Dale Walker’s desk in the guidance office had Betty’s name on it. There were also some new school policies to learn.
“It is a little more intimidating with stuff like lunch,” Betty said. “You don’t want to sit in someone else’s chair.”
Betty said she saw Friday’s ninth grade orientation as a mixture of excitement and the first-day jitters. She said had a slight case of the stomach butterflies, a fact that wasn’t as visible as her bright smile.
“You’re excited because high school is supposed to be the best four years of your life. At the same time, you’re nervous because you are a freshman,” Betty said.
Getting the incoming freshman class acclimated as to what to expect is what ninth grade orientation is all about, said BHS Principal Butch Dutton.
Dutton, who was named as the school’s top administrator this summer, shares a common bond with Betty. He is coming from a middle school (Andrew Jackson) this school term, too.
And Dutton was greeted by some of the school’s 185 freshman on Friday, which he said, is by far the school’s largest-ever class of ninth graders.
“I want these freshmen to feel at home, just like this staff has made me feel since I got here,” Dutton said. “We want them to know that we are here for them. They aren’t here for us.”
Dutton said the anxiety Betty felt is a natural part of the transition from middle to high school.
With a background as a middle principal, Dutton is familiar with both sixth grade and ninth grade orientations.
He said the biggest difference is, in grade 9, students have to be made aware of how what they do in the next four years will impact their lives, regardless if it’s a career in a military, a vocational field, college or going to a tech school.”
“Today, we’re walking through that with all of them as a point of emphasis,” he said. “Our goal will never change. It’s to put them in a position to be successful and graduate in four years, or earlier, if they feel motivated to do that.”
Editor’s note; Greg Summers contributed to this story.
Contact reporter Reece Murphy at (803) 283-1151