JACKSONVILLE — Of the hallways that lead away from the lobby at Jacksonville High School, one is occupied exclusively by seventh- and eighth-graders, the youngest students on campus.
The cinder block walls in this L-shaped hall are striped in school colors, the tan lockers unadorned. Shortly after the morning bell rang Thursday, metal doors closed off this space from the rest of the school and a new year began — as did something administrators are calling the Jacksonville Middle Preparatory Academy.
The academy is a school within a school, administrators say, designed to give students in the middle years their own space to develop apart from the older high school students.
“We’re charting new territory here,” said Jacksonville High School Principal Rick Carter.
Rusty Thrasher, in his first year as vice principal at Jacksonville High. Though labeled a vice principal, in his new role he said he will oversee the middle school much in the same way a principal would.
In addition to giving the academy its own administrator, the seventh and eighth grades will be set apart in more obvious ways. Their bell schedule will be about 10 minutes ahead of the students in the upper grades, and they will share only a limited amount of time and space with the older students, such as when attending band class or coming to or from school.
“We want to run it like it’s our own school,” Thrasher said.
Science teacher Amanda Glaze said it’s particularly important to capture students’ attention in the middle years, when they are more inclined to be interested in learning.
“It’s really going to build a home for these students at a time when they need that support,” Glaze said.
Glaze comes to the academy from Jacksonville State University, where she formerly taught college students. She has earned a doctorate, but said she is coming back to K-12 because she missed working with young kids.
The Association for Middle Level Education is an international organization that exists to support schools that teach students age 10 through 15. Referencing 40 years of research by the group, Dru Tomlin, director of middle level services for the association, said students have unique emotional and academic needs in the middle school years and schools should have programs in place to meet those needs.
“If we only have an elementary school and then a high school,then we’re missing a huge opportunity to serve those students and get them ready for that next level,” Tomlin said.
The academy in Jacksonville is a sign of things to come in the high school grades, educators at the high school said. By the time this year’s sophomore class graduates, administrators plan to implement four separate career academies.
These career academies, like the new middle school academy, will be like schools within the larger school but they have yet to be launched. They will be designed to create pathways first to college, and then, ultimately, to careers, said Pam Inmon, the high school’s director of career and technical education.
The environment of the middle school academy will better prepare students for those academies later on.
“I think it’s a place where we plant those seeds,” she said.
The academy begins as the push for a new, separate middle school campus continues. For more than a decade, community leaders have discussed the possibility of building a middle school.
“The perception has been that it’s difficult for the seventh- and eighth-graders to be in the same building with high schoolers,” Superintendent Jon Paul Campbell said.
Mike Poe, school board president, has been one of the leading proponents for a new middle school in Jacksonville. He said the academy will help bring the system closer to, but will not accomplish, the board’s goal of providing a separate space for students in grades six through eight.
“I think it’s the closest we can come with the resources we have,” Poe said, calling the academy a positive step. “I don’t think it replaces the need for a middle school. I think it’s just something we’ve done in the meantime.”