Jacky Sparks calls each cluster of four classrooms in the new Anniston Middle School a house.
“The feeling you get when you walk in here is part of the concept,” he says. Sparks has been designated to be the school’s first principal when it opens next fall.
As Sparks speaks, fire alarms sound intermittent tests through the building. At various entrances, workers unload bulky cartons from trucks and move them into hallways. Construction on the middle school has been completed, and the $6-million facility has been turned over to the Anniston school board.
Moving in is under way. Somewhere in the building, former Superintendent Dr. J.V. Sailors is helping supervise the process. Next month, elementary school PTAs will hold meetings at the middle school to take tours and to begin to understand just what the school offers.
Even though the school will house all sixth, seventh and eighth graders in the system, it is designed to provide each youngster with a sense of closeness, smallness and security sometimes lost in a traditional junior high school setting.
THE SCHOOL IS NOT just Cobb Junior High School moved to a new setting. The building is designed to operate as a true middle school, and Sparks hopes parents and community leaders will understand the concept. The school will not work unless the concept is adhered to, he says.
A middle school is not one vast conglomerate of classrooms where students, each with a different schedule, move at the sound of bells from room to room, teacher to teacher. Instead, it is a school within a school within a school — and it doesn’t even have a bell.
Each child will go to their own four-room school each day. There, the student will remain throughout the day, moving between four teachers in his “house,” except when he goes to P.E. or lunch.
Each of the clusters has its own entry door, its own short hallway lined with lockers, leading to the four classrooms. At the end of each hallway is an office shared by the four teachers of the cluster, where they will plan and consult on the students’ progress.
Each grade of three clusters forms a separate wing of the middle school. Students in different grades will have little occasion to meet during the school day.
The finished school, adobe colored on the outside, sits on a hill overlooking busy McClellan Boulevard. It is on the site of the old Bama Drive-In Theatre, but the landscape has changed dramatically.
The building is light and airy inside, accented with bright colors and featuring murals that direct students to the classroom wings and other facilities, such as the offices and media center.
EACH WING has been assigned its own color combinations and will be given its own name. The classrooms are roomy and bright, with one wall in each painted an attractive bight color.
Storage space is lavish throughout the building, including in the classrooms. Each teacher will have a desk and filing cabinet in her classroom as well as another in the teachers’ office.
Middle schools, Sparks says, focus on smallness and look back to elementary schools as a model to provide the security still needed by sixth, seventh and eighth graders. “Effective middle schools have an elementary school atmosphere.”
Since Sparks was appointed principal in November, he has been working to familiarize himself with the middle school concept for which this building was designed.
Last week, he attended a conference on middle schools in New Orleans. Experts there told him that if the concept is carried through, he can expect a decrease in discipline problems and an increase in attendance, because students will like school better. Studies from other true middle schools also show improvements in standardized test scores, Sparks says.
The Anniston school board built the new middle school as a showpiece aimed at increasing the attractiveness of the school system to parents and to industry. It was intended to be a standout among schools in the state, and Sparks and others who have seen it say that has been achieved. There is nothing else like it in Alabama, the state inspector who looked at it a week ago told Sparks.
FROM ITS 32-PLACE computer center to its vast library and media center, from its colorful, large, brightly skylighted gymnasium to its ultra-modern lunchroom and movie-house size auditorium, the school has been lavished with attention to space and to detail. No perceived need has gone unmet.
Where special education teachers have customarily had trouble finding space for their classes, this school provides extra-large, dividable classroom space in each wing. Also in the “resource area” of each wing are offices for guidance counselors for each grade level and a superbly appointed science lab for each grade.
The school features an extensive communications system that allows teachers or students to call from any room in the building to a central console in the office. The system also enables school officials to broadcast messages throughout the building or to specified rooms.
“This is Utopia as far as what we’ve got here,” Sparks says.
Although the building is essentially ready for students, staffing is not yet complete. Most of the teachers from Cobb Junior High School will move over for the upper grades, and Sparks will recruit teachers from the elementary schools in the system for the sixth grade. Sparks says he intends to choose, where he can, from among the best teachers in the system.
But the personnel available within the system still leaves the middle school about six teachers short for full staffing of the clusters. The school board has given the Anniston City Council a $1.1 million “want list” that includes the funding needed to complete the staffing of the school, but it is not known what the council will do about the request.
“If we’re not able to fill the clusters then we won’t be able to have a middle school,” Sparks says. “We would have to go to a junior high school philosophy.”
BUT THE SCHOOL was not built as a junior high school, and would be ill-suited for it.
Although Sparks has not been freed from his duties as principal of Johnston Elementary School to do the planning necessary to ready the middle school for its opening next fall, he has initiated steps to ready a program for the school and to begin familiarizing teachers with him, with the school, and with the middle school concept.
Sparks visited a middle school in Decatur that has operated for years utilizing the same concept. He has appointed a committee to develop curriculum guidelines aimed at synchronizing the curriculum objectives with those already in place for the lower grades in the school system. That committee also visited Decatur to talk with teachers there and to learn about the middle school teaching philosophy.
Sparks has met with all prospective middle school teachers to give them a progress report on the school. “I felt they needed to meet me and hear what I thought about certain things, because it’s going to be new to them and to me.”
In recent weeks, Sparks has worried about the lack of adequate time to bring teachers together in their clusters and to familiarize them with the differences between what they have been doing in junior high school and what they will be doing at the middle school.
But after his trip to the New Orleans conference he said experts told him the middle school is built properly and teachers will adapt relatively easily. Teachers will not team teach but will be teaching the same subjects in pretty much the same way, so adaptation will not be difficult, the experts said.
Sparks is enthused about the new building and ready for the challenges its opening will bring. “It’s going to be a beautiful place,” he says. “It’s going to be first class. But the program offered and the quality of instruction is what’s going to make it.”