There are 40 sixth grade only schools in the USA, and educators are increasingly interested in this approach to improve education and the experience of middle school age students.
At the Frost Sixth Grade Academy in Kentucky, students in yellow and navy polo shirts began filling the gymnasium at 7 am, awaiting the morning meeting while they pulled books from their backpacks to read in the bleachers.
Among the books the students were reading was “The Giver” by Lois Lowry. It is one of 25 books they’re required to read outside of class before the end of the year. This year the reading goal is one of many changes at Frost, including becoming a sixth grade only school.
Frost is not the only school of this type in Kentucky. The Lloyd B. McGuffey Sixth Grade Center in Stanford is also a sixth grade only school.
And while there is little research on whether they work, educators say they have seen positive changes, including increased test scores and higher maturity levels.
The academies were created because research shows students can struggle when entering middle school because of the age difference between sixth- and eighth-grade students.
“There’s a big difference between a 10-year-old fifth-grader and a 13- or 14-year-old eighth-grader,” said Brian Shumate, who formerly oversaw Frost as an assistant superintendent of achievement. “You need to let them grow up a year, mature.”
A 2011 Harvard University study, which analyzed statewide administrative data from Florida public schools, determined that students moving from elementary to middle school “suffer a sharp drop in student achievement” and have an 18 percent higher chance of dropping out between grades nine and 10.
Shumate, who is now superintendent of the Medford School District in Oregon, used that information to pitch Frost Academy to Superintendent Donna Hargens in July 2013. Shumate had previously started Jefferson County’s Freshman Academy program as principal at Iroquois High School. He said he incorporated ideas from that program and others in Frost’s reconstruction.