WHEELING - Local middle schools in the Ohio Valley are heading in a new direction by expanding their offerings and their focus to become more involved in students' educational careers before they head to high school.
According to local school principals, schools are finding more ways to build a personal connection to students to ensure they are on the right path not just academically, but emotionally and socially as well.
Walter Saunders, principal of Triadelphia Middle School, said the main focus of the school is to get every student involved in an extracurricular activity, which is the key to engaging students and preparing them for the rigors of high school.
Tori Saseen, left, and Sahvannah Pattison, sit on exercise balls in the physical education classroom at Bridge Street Middle School. The balls allow students to keep moving and even get some slight exercise while learning in the classroom.
"We've extended our clubs and the number of athletic offerings," Saunders said. "The main thing in middle school is to get students involved in something and we meet those needs with a variety of options, because everyone has different interests. The high school is where they go all out with clubs, so we try to feed into that as best we can."
Saunders said Triadelphia has recently added new activities such as ski club as well as middle school cross country and golf in athletics.
Wheeling Middle School also strives to get all students involved in at least one activity through its "Wildcat Connection" program, in which students meet with counselors, teachers and their parents to set personal and academic goals for the school year. In these sessions, students are highly encouraged to find an activity that interests them.
According to principal Rick Jones, getting students involved in activities prepares them for busy high school schedules.
Triadelphia Middle also uses a similar program - "ME Time" or "Meaningful Exchange Time" - where teachers will bring students in to discuss their progress on goals both in and outside of school, Saunders said.
"You get more information about a student (with this program) and that helps build a better connection and that connection definitely has benefits in the classroom," Saunders said.
Raquel Welch, principal of Bridge Street Middle School, said the biggest change she has seen in middle schools' approach in the past few years is the increased focus on nurturing multiple aspects of a student's life.
"The biggest change is not just a focus on academics, it's about their social and emotional needs as well," Welch said. "We praise the students for not only doing well in academics, but showing leadership, helping one another and just being kind individuals.
"When you have a positive school environment, when everybody takes ownership for their actions, you see an increase in camaraderie and then that affects learning, because they enjoy being here, they work harder and you can see that increase in student achievement."
One area Bridge Street focuses on outside of academics is students' physical health. The school has incorporated numerous measures to increase the amount of movement throughout the school day. The students participate in "family fun nights" where they have healthy snacks and participate in different exercises. Also, teachers will have students take a break during class to do some quick exercise movements and students in gym class have the option of sitting on exercise balls during lectures to increase core strength and to release extra energy while sitting.
Bridge Street also addresses other areas in a student's life at the school's Health and Wellness Fair in which students can go to sessions on topics that reach outside of academics such as dating, cyberbullying and social media, nutrition, exercise, stress management, dating violence, acceptance and tolerance and how to communicate with your parents. The topics are based on issues and questions students have frequently brought to counselors and teachers.
"Our focus is always academics, but it is also looking at the child as a whole," Welch said.
"I think we are bridging that gap by starting sixth graders on the track toward becoming responsible young adults who are looking ahead to the future and our eight graders, we have given them the foundation they need when they enter into high school."