by Tori Hamby

Thomasboro Academy in west Charlotte isn’t your typical school.

Before the bell rings, middle schoolers walk their younger siblings to their classrooms before arriving at their own homerooms. Instead of transitioning to another school following the fifth-grade, students move to another part of the school.

Thomasboro Academy is one of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools’ eight converted “pre-K-8 schools,” which serve preschool-age to eighth-grade students in the same building. Low-performing middle schools in CMS’ west Charlotte corridor were closed at the end of the 2010-11 school year and their students sent to the converted hybrid elementary-middle schools.

“The biggest benefit of this style of school is consistency,” Jan McIver, Thomasboro Academy principal, said. “Consistency in education can be a make-it or break-it kind of thing. Rather than kids leaving us after elementary school, we have access to them through nine grade levels.”

And with Superintendent Heath Morrison’s stated commitment to finding innovative ways to structure schools throughout CMS, hybrid elementary-middle schools could eventually appear in north Mecklenburg.

As middle schools – especially Bailey Middle – continue to approach capacity, the CMS board might have to look at creative ways to utilize available school buildings, said Rhonda Lennon, the Lake Norman area’s school board representative.

“We are looking at a lot of options,” she said. “I’m certainly not opposed to K-8 schools in the Lake Norman area.”

K-8 magnet schools, such as John Motley Morehead STEM Academy in the University City area and Waddell Language Academy on Nations Ford Road, have been particularly successful, Lennon said, some earning national recognition for academic achievement.

Unlike the eight neighborhood hybrid K-8 schools that opened in 2011, the magnet schools are open to any student in CMS and offer a specialty, such as language immersion or leadership training.

Lennon said she could envision the school district opening both types of K-8 schools in the northern part of the county. She added that several Lake Norman charter schools serve elementary, middle and high school grades within the same school.

“Our biggest challenge would be transitioning,” she said. “Nobody has lots of extra room right now.”

She said the neighborhood K-8 schools still have a few “kinks” – the schools reported higher suspension rates than many of their middle school-only counterparts, but the schools are reporting improvements in student performance.

The eight hybrid schools also received extremely varied academic results after one-year of operation. All eight feed into West Charlotte High School and as part of CMS’ Project L.I.F.T. Zone comprise some of the district’s most impoverished schools.

The structure of Thomasboro Academy, McIver said, promotes a higher level of parent engagement than traditional middle schools. Parents, who she said are more likely to attend activities outside of regular school hours for their younger children, can also attend events for their older children with no extra inconvenience.

“For whatever reason, a parent’s focus is normally on their younger kids,” McIver said. “More than likely a parent will come to see their second-grader sing at a school events, so by default, they will also come to see their eighth-grader sing.”

While at Thomasboro Academy, she added, parents and students only have one set of rules, regulations and policies to learn during their nine years.

The school’s staff also makes an effort to give students in the sixth- through eighth-grades a “middle school experience,” McIver said. A student council helps organize middle grades-only events, such as dances and formals, for their peers.

The school currently doesn’t field any middle school sports teams, but McIver said she’s fighting to make that happen.

During the school day, students in middle and elementary grades do mingle outside of their classrooms.

“We don’t keep them separated,” she said. “They ride buses together; they eat in the cafeteria together; they walk in the hallway together.”

She said she thinks the proximity of the two groups of students encourages good behavior. Students in middle grades spend time engaging with their younger counterparts through a reading partners program and performances.

“I think they have more responsibility because they have more eyes on them,” she said. “It kind of forces them to take that role model responsibility more seriously.”