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Fort Smith schools prepare for middle school model

Trinity Junior High to become a middle school, no longer offering ninth grade

Published: September 29, 2020   
Sydney Hanna
Trinity Junior High volleyball coach Mike Bishop meets with his mentoring group in Fort Smith, including eighth-grader Nicholas Taylor (left) and seventh-grader Estella Garcia (right), in the gym Sept. 17.

FORT SMITH -- Catholic schools in Fort Smith are looking toward realigning their grade levels to line up with changes being made in the Fort Smith School District.

Next fall, grades 6-8 will be considered middle school and grades 9-12 will be high school. Starting in August 2021, the sixth grades at Immaculate Conception and Christ the King schools will move to Trinity Junior High School and ninth grade will no longer be offered at Trinity. The two elementary schools will educate pre-K through fifth graders and Trinity will be a sixth-eighth grade middle school. 

As the transition occurs, graduations will be held for fifth, sixth, eighth and ninth graders in May. 

Trinity principal Dr. Karen Hollenbeck and assistant principal Zack Edwards have been dealing with two challenges: the ongoing pandemic and readying the school to welcome sixth graders in August. 

“We had grand plans last spring to visit schools in northwest Arkansas, Tulsa and other places, but the pandemic changed all that,” Hollenbeck said. “We’ll start in October because we don’t want to necessarily have the same expectations for sixth graders as we do for seventh graders. We’d like to have a truer middle school mentality with ‘houses’ or ‘families’ that the kids travel in.”

This year, Trinity started a mentor program to help current students deal with the pandemic and to prepare staff to start thinking differently as they transition to a middle school. Each teacher is assigned 10 students to mentor.

“We really wanted to focus on the teacher-student relationship this year in case we have to shut down at any point, so that each kid feels a close bond with a staff member, but we also wanted to take on something a little more middle-schoolish,” Hollenbeck said. “Each group does some of the business of the school day together, besides the housekeeping kind of stuff. Right now, they’re studying a book, ‘Make Your Bed’ by Admiral William McRaven, together. It’s time to foster relationships and meet certain goals, not catch-up time for homework.”

The Trinity leaders have met with Immaculate Conception principal Sharon Blentlinger and Christ the King principal Myndi Keyton to discuss the textbooks each school uses in sixth grade so that they can have consistency and reuse some existing materials. These meetings have been fruitful in other ways as well.

“Since the four of us have been meeting monthly we have been able to coordinate events,” Keyton said. “We brought in a great speaker for our staff and did a virtual religion retreat with Father Stephen Gadberry. We’ve coordinated all three schools’ buying to save money with bulk purchases. It’s a great support system.”

Moving the sixth grade to Trinity will give students some advantages like fully equipped labs, a large band program, more opportunities in the arts and other activities.

“Trinity participates in Fort Smith’s basketball, volleyball, track and cross-country leagues,” Edwards said. “We’re in consultation with the public schools so we can stay on par with them. We’re still waiting to see what will happen with sixth-grade football.”

Hollenbeck said the kids seem very excited about the changes because Trinity is the “big kids’ school,” but parents are a little more reserved. 

“Sixth graders are very different from eighth graders,” she said, drawing on her 13 years of experience as principal of now-shuttered St. Boniface School. “I think parents are cautiously optimistic that the change will be good for their kids. The elementary schools have had those kids a long time, from preschool to the end of sixth grade. We only have them three years, so it’s a different kind of nurturing. We certainly start helping them to learn to manage their freedom, their social media and how to be independent studiers.”

Trinity is an anomaly as it is the only stand-alone Catholic junior high school in the diocese, and next year it will be the only Catholic middle school. Most elementary schools in Little Rock and northwest Arkansas go through eighth grade, incorporating some middle school aspects for their older students.

Eighth graders have been veering between excitement at starting high school a year earlier and sadness about leaving after only two years. Next spring Trinity will be celebrating awards nights as well as graduations for both grades 8 and 9. 

“The eighth graders hold a special place in our hearts because we’ll only have them two years,” Hollenbeck said. “We are very sad that there will be one less year of Catholic education in Fort Smith, but they will have opportunities we can’t offer, from more advanced placement classes and internships to technical training at the new Peak Center the school district is building.”

While the atmosphere at Trinity is primarily upbeat, the reconfiguration presents challenges for Immaculate Conception and Christ the King schools.  

“CTK and IC will be losing an entire grade causing significant loss of students, families, volunteers and income,” Blentlinger said. “Most likely staff will need to be adjusted.  Our school board has formed an ad hoc committee to study the areas of finance, personnel and facilities to determine the impact the change will have on our school and discern solutions so that Immaculate Conception remains a strong dynamic Catholic school in our community.”

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