W.L. Seaton secondary school teacher Darryl Gambell works on a project during a field trip with Grade 8 Academy students.

W.L. Seaton secondary school teacher Darryl Gambell works on a project during a field trip with Grade 8 Academy students.

Academy gives students a boost

The Grade 8 Academy at W.L. Seaton secondary school helps to ease the transition into high school

The transition from Grade 7 to 8 can be a difficult one for many students, but a new program at W.L. Seaton secondary school has made it a little easier.

With the Grade 8 Academy, students are taking part in project-based learning to ease them into high school while at the same time improving their literacy and numeracy skills.

“We have a huge variety of students with a huge variety of levels,” said science and leadership teacher Paul Britton, who started the program last fall, and ran it with teachers Michelle Robinson and Scott Belshaw. “We started off by saying let’s take 30 kids and then we looked at all Grade 8 English kids and the time and logistics involved. It’s a bit like running a school within a school.”

Britton pointed out that it’s a situation that has long existed at Seaton, which is a dual-track secondary school offering both French immersion and instruction in English.

“So we had all of our English teachers at the school create an integrated program based on project-based learning, but always including all of the core subjects such as English, social studies and math.”

The program has included field trips ranging from a day of launching student-built submarines to a team-building session at Gardom Lake.

“And we spent one day in the foods room at school — we use food a lot in the program,” said Britton. “We have an interesting social dynamic. Sometimes we are in a town-hall type of classroom and sometimes in small groups.

“I apologize to the kids for being pseudo guinea pigs this year and for the most part they were fine.”

Britton said students starting Grade 8 have a numeracy level that ranges from Grade 2 to 8.

“So it’s really challenging to expect them to do principals or foundations in math. Our goal is to get them to do apprenticeship and workplace math.

“Our literacy goals are the same, and there is a huge intervention with a lot of these children, from kids who won’t pick up a book to those who won’t put a book down. When it comes to success we look at where students have gone from a minimal reading level to a Grade 5 and 6 level, which is huge.

“So we said let’s look at ways to improve their learning. The key part is transitions, kids were coming to us with a C-minus in math in Grade 7 to a good mark in Grade 8 and this program helps alleviate some of that transition.”

One of the challenges teachers had, said Britton, was to integrate the core subjects into the program.

“Some worked nicely and others not so much,” he said. “But we feel it’s unfair to have the kids go back to a regular learning environment after this, so for Grade 9, we’ll do two teams teaching math/science and have an English/social studies teacher.

“There have been things we learned as teachers that hopefully will be improved on. It’s about teaching kids in a new way.

“For some students, it’s the fear of ‘this isn’t what a school traditionally looks like,’ and as teachers we have this fear, too, that we’re going to miss something or get them out of sync with numeracy and literacy.”

Britton said it’s not just academics where students have improved. Behaviour has also seen an improvement.

“Attendance in the first semester was better than in previous years; students were more accountable.”

At feeder schools for Seaton, such as Alexis Park and Harwood, teachers are looking at how to best prepare their Grade 6 and 7 students for the transition into high school.

“PAC was part of the conversation process; I didn’t think we did as good a job as we thought in getting the word out because we’ve had parents who are glowing about the program and others are worried if it’s really high school; had we done a better job of informing parents, that would have helped.”

This year, funding from the ministry’s Learning Improvement Fund provided the necessary staffing.

“We won’t have it next year so we are struggling, but it’s designed and in the timetable to happen again.”