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Jackson makes the case for a middle school

Jackson County Schools now lists a traditional middle school as one of its top capital budget priorities. Jackson County Schools now lists a traditional middle school as one of its top capital budget priorities.

There has long been talk of creating a traditional middle school in Jackson County, but now the conversation appears to be picking up steam. In a January joint meeting with the Jackson County Commission, the school board listed a traditional middle school as one of its top budget priorities.

“Without a traditional middle school we’re lacking a lot of opportunities,” said Superintendent Dana Ayers.  

Jackson County Schools is unique among The Smoky Mountain News’ four county coverage area — Haywood, Jackson, Macon, and Swain counties, along with the Qualla Boundary — in that it does not have a typical middle school that exclusively serves sixth- through eighth-graders. Instead, there are four K-8 schools, serving a total of 724 middle grade students — Fairview, Cullowhee Valley, Smokey Mountain Elementary and Scotts Creek. 

Part of what brought this discussion to the forefront is the complicated case of middle school sports in a district with K-8 schools. Jackson County Schools has both district middle school sports and school-based middle school sports, which has put a strain on both staffing and facilities. Throughout the 2022-2023 school year, administration had discussions about ending one sports organization or the other. However, at the Jan. 24 board of education meeting, after an outpouring of community input, school board members decided to maintain both district and school-based middle grades sports. 

“I would hate to see the Jackson County school system turn its back on any young person who needs a responsible adult to relate to in the community or in the school,” said Jackson resident and former coach Dave Waldrop during the Jan. 24 meeting. “I would like to see the school system keep as many opportunities as possible.”

During a joint meeting of the Board of Education and the County Commission on Jan. 31, school administration named a traditional middle school as a top budget priority, second only to expansion at Fairview School that would create space for a cafeteria. 

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“When we talk about constructing a traditional middle school, we know that that’s not going to happen overnight and that is still the priority after our Fairview cafeteria and classrooms,” said Ayers. 

Superintendent Ayers spoke to the importance of a middle school in Jackson County. Without one, students lack many opportunities in academics, arts, athletics and career and technical education. There are differing levels of access to all of those offerings at the four K-8 schools.  

Some of the schools lack the ability to offer advanced classes for middle grades students because there are not enough students to make up a whole class. For example, while Cullowhee Valley and Fairview schools can offer high school level Math I for eighth-graders, Smokey Mountain Elementary and Scotts Creek School cannot. 

“If we had that traditional middle school setting, then more students could be afforded that same opportunity,” said Ayers. 

Additionally, resources for students with disabilities in middle grades have to be spread out across the district. According to Ayers, the number one staffing need in the district right now is for students with disabilities and at-risk populations. 

“If we had a traditional setting those teachers could be more collaborative and more adults could see those children,” said Ayers. 

Smokey Mountain High School offers 54 different Career and Technical Education classes. Administration thinks those would be more useful to students if there were more opportunities for CTE classes while in middle grades. Currently, there is only one CTE class at each school. Smokey Mountain Elementary and Scotts Creek have STEM classes, Cullowhee Valley is offering an agriculture class for the second year in a row and Fairview is able to have a business marketing class. 

“Each of those schools has one CTE offering for all those grades 6-8 students,” said Ayers. “What we hope is for a traditional middle school to bring all those programs together, so all middle-schoolers could have access to each of those classes before high school.”

“If we can get all the middle schools together, we can offer so much more and so much more opportunity,” said school board member Kim Moore. 

Another opportunity for collaboration exists between core subject middle school teachers. According to Ayers, there is only one teacher for each middle grade subject at the K-8 schools. Because of this, collaboration between those teachers of the same subject is difficult and time consuming. 

Additionally, administration and curriculum leaders at traditional elementary and middle schools are responsible for either elementary or middle grades. At K-8 schools, the same number of administrators are responsible for serving students from 4 to 14 years of age and an incredible range of abilities and needs. 

“The level of expertise is not always there because that’s not how they were all trained,” said Ayers. “If 6-8 had traditional middle schools, then those building administrators and leaders could really focus on being instructional leaders in those grade ranges and subject areas, and elementary building administrators could have more focused expertise on elementary school. It’s difficult for any administrator — whether you’re principal or assistant principal — to be able to have that wide of a range of knowledge and understanding to know that our teachers are providing good core instruction, good supplemental instruction, good art, music and band instruction when you are responsible for ages 4-14.”

In addition to all the academic and staff-related concerns, there is also student wellness to consider. With a traditional middle school, students are expected to make a transition between fifth and sixth grade, moving to a new environment with different people. This movement helps prepare them for the transition from middle school to high school. Students who attend a K-8 school will spend the greater part of 10 years at the same school with most of the same peers and authority figures, after which the transition to high school freshmen can be jarring. 

“Middle school is hard,” said Moore. “It’s a hard time for them. So what happens is if they go from elementary to middle in the same building and then they get dropped off at Smokey Mountain High, that’s a lot.”

When the topic for a middle school was brought up in 2017, the county discussed the possibility of constructing a new building for the traditional middle school as well as renovating one of the existing elementary schools. The school system won’t move forward with determining a site until the board of commissioners is ready to financially support the plan. 

The county commission will continue its budget discussions in the coming months. 

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