JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) — Johnson City’s change to two middle schools may have created winners and losers on the field and court due to a new crosstown rivalry, but teachers and administrators say it’s proving to be a win all the way around academically and socially.

“The feeling in the building is really, really positive and our eighth graders have been awesome,” said James Jacobs, principal at Indian Trail Middle School. “We’ve got a really great group of kids.”

This year, those eighth graders came back to the school where they had attended fifth and sixth grades before going on to Liberty Bell Middle School for seventh grade last year. That’s because for years, the city had all its fifth and sixth graders together in once school, and all its seventh and eighth graders in another.

Students enter Indian Trail Middle School, where Principal James Jacobs says the shift to a 6th-8th grade model from a 5-6 one has been a big success. (WJHL photo)

The sheer number of students in each grade meant split planning periods for teachers within the same subject, which cut down on opportunities for collaboration. It also put size limits on the number of kids who could be involved in after-school activities ranging from sports and band to chess club or Beta club.

That hasn’t gone unnoticed at the schools’ central office.

“We have seen a gain in after school activities and extracurriculars at the middle schools,” Superintendent Steve Barnett said.

He said the smaller enrollment has allowed teachers and administrators to build deeper relationships, and that’s having some very important effects.

“We have actually seen a decrease in discipline referrals at each middle school,” Barnett said.

Jacobs said administrations poured a lot of time into the transition last year. At Indian Trail, they knew they’d be losing fifth-grade teachers to the elementary schools and gaining new ones from Liberty Bell. Liberty Bell would see half its seventh and eighth-grade teachers move to Indian Trail, while half that school’s sixth-grade teachers would move across town to Liberty Bell.

All the shuffling was more than worth it, Jacobs said.

“The payoff has been more than what I thought. There’s been so many positives. It was the right move.”

Indian Trail was introducing 52 new students to Beta Club this week. The organization promotes academic achievement, character, leadership and service.

“Across the board, there’s just been so much more for kids,” Jacobs said.

Public schools provide many supports and opportunities, but academics is still where the rubber meets the road. The middle schools just performed the year’s first “checkpoint” tests.

“The data looks good top to bottom,” Jacobs said. “Sixth grade, seventh grade, eighth grade in all content areas, they look great.”

After the data come in, teachers meet and develop strategies to move students forward from whatever level they are performing at, Jacobs said.

“If you look at every kid, what are the next steps for moving that kid from their current level to the next level.”

Johnson City has used federal ESSER money, available to help offset the effects of the pandemic, to try and support some of the students who are most at risk of learning loss.

“They’ve really made the most out of the money that they have in creating new positions to support students, whether it’s chronic absenteeism to more assistance in the classroom to lowering classroom numbers for elementary schools,” Jacobs said. “There’s been a huge effort in that area, and I think it’s paying off.”

Jacobs said he had “a lot of fun” during eight years running a fifth and sixth-grade school, but he thinks the 6-8 configuration is better “by far.”

“Something about maturity, not having those eighth graders in the building to be leaders, really just kind of changes the dynamic. It’s much more calm, it’s much more focused.”

Haley Reynolds has been teaching eighth grade English/language arts at Liberty Bell for about as long as Jacobs has been principal at Indian Trail. Now in her eighth year, she said the reduction in numbers at each grade level has made a huge difference for teachers and students.

She tutors after school and said with half as many kids in each grade, more students seem to be taking advantage of extracurricular opportunities.

Liberty Bell 8th-grade science teacher Stephan Williams says the ability for the whole science faculty to collaborate together is much better with a smaller group of students. (WJHL photo)

“We’re able to reach out to so many more students now that we’re split. Seeing a variety of clubs and extended learning opportunities is just amazing to see.”

Even just having students for three years is going to allow for stronger relationships between students and teachers, along with their parents, she said. One example came this fall with a group of kids that wanted to start a chess club.

“While we are making sure that we are matching up with Indian Trail, we’re trying to be as equitable as we can be, we still have the authority to accommodate our students’ needs.”

Reynolds said that additional opportunity outside the classroom has benefits inside it.

“Every student thrives when they have something to motivate them … just something that allows them to use their voice and do what they love definitely translates into the classroom.”

She and Stephan Williams, an eighth-grade science teacher, both said another advantage this year is the ability for teachers within subject areas to collaborate more than they could when their school was serving twice as many kids at one grade level.

“Teachers now have common planning periods, so I can meet up with all the eighth-grade English teachers whenever needed to go over curriculum or questions, ways that we can improve our instruction to meet our students’ needs.”

Williams said he thinks the change raises student achievement. He said the larger crop of students in one school made it harder for teachers to collaborate and touch base daily because of split planning periods.

“We can talk about what works for some students and what works for some teachers may not work for other students and other teachers, and it’s good to find that balance between all the classrooms,” he said.