Fifth-grade academy benefits students at River Gate
Alice Lendos arrives at school, puts her things away and settles into her homeroom. When it's time for science class, she gets up, grabs her binder and changes classes. For reading and writing, she moves to another classroom and switches again for math. A typical day for high school — but Alice is a fifth-grader, one of approximately 150 students in River Gate Elementary’s fifth-grade academy.

“The idea for the academy began when we received feedback from former students. Some told us that they felt emotionally unprepared for middle school and others felt overwhelmed,” said Kimberly Odom, River Gate principal.

In November 2012, River Gate teacher leaders visited the Ron Clark Academy in Atlanta, a nationally recognized for its innovative practices. What impressed staff the most was the confidence of the fifth-graders.

“The students were poised, polite, used good eye contact and could easily start a conversation,” said Cassandra Gettys, a River Gate fifth-grade teacher. “Those are important skills in school and in life.”

The teachers met with Southwest Middle School principal Barry Blair after they came back to find out his expectations for incoming sixth-graders. Blair wanted students to be prepared, organized, responsible and accountable.

“Both visits confirmed that we needed to fine-tune some of our practices in order to prepare our students for the challenges of sixth grade and beyond,” said fifth-grade teacher Marjan Howerton.

In addition to changing classes, fifth-graders have advisory time at the beginning of each day to provide academic support, social-skills development and community service planning. Students’ cubbies are now used as lockers and they are allowed to get materials from them three times a day. Students keep their materials in a binder, similar to those used in middle and high school. A larger focus is being placed on college and careers. Students will go on a trip to Winthrop to tour the campus and receive information about the admissions process.

“I am very excited about the fifth-grade academy. It isn’t just a fancy name. Our teachers have higher expectations of us and it feels different,” said participant Simone Johnson. “Our teachers want us to do well now so we can do well later in life.”

Isaac Colson said he enjoys moving from class to class throughout the day. He has noticed that there is more homework and added responsibilities, but acknowledges that it is preparing him for middle school, high school and college.

“Designing the academy has been a team effort. Our fifth-grade teachers put a lot of time and thought into what this experience should be for our students,” said Odom.