The transition from middle school to high school is a daunting one for many students. So one Wilmington charter school is trying to ease that move with a new honors program called APEX.
Contributor Larry Nagengast spent some time learning about this program at Eastside charter- and how it connects to a handful of area private schools.
When Aaron Bass entered high school, he says “it was like going to a different planet.”
Bass, growing up in Philadelphia, attended the city’s public schools through eighth grade, and then he won a full scholarship to the prestigious Germantown Friends Academy.
Bass would eventually choose a career in education, and today he is the CEO of the Eastside Charter School, a K-8 program located on the northern edge of Wilmington’s low-income Riverside community.
Bass sees a lot of himself in many of the middle school students at Eastside, and that includes having the potential to succeed at high schools that offer a rigorous college prep curriculum. And he would like their transition to high school to be more like an easy bus ride across town than a rocket ship blasting off toward Mars or Venus.
To make that transition easier, Eastside this fall launched a middle school honors program, called APEX, that, in essence, has students working a year ahead – sixth graders following a seventh grade curriculum, for example.
But the big attraction of APEX is a visitation program with four of New Castle County’s most prominent independent schools – Tower Hill, Wilmington Friends, Tatnall and Sanford.
On four Tuesdays in October – the 24 participants in APEX (16 sixth graders and eight from seventh and eighth grades) will make a series of two-hour visits to the partnering schools. Then they get to choose which of the four schools they will visit regularly – spending a full day there once a month from November through April.
“What you don’t know may seem intimidating or scary. This will help open their eyes,” says Brendan Minihan Jr., head of Tatnall’s Middle School.
When he entered Germantown Friends, “I didn’t have a posse, a cohort. I was all alone,” Bass recalls. “It was sink or swim.”
APEX, he says, is a way of making sure Eastside students have some experience with the independent school world before they make their high school choices.
“They will have friends. They will know the teachers, they will know what the school is like,” Bass says. “They will have zero shock when they go to start ninth grade.”
“It’s going to be complete immersion,” says Jonathan Huxtable, head of the middle school at Wilmington Friends.
At Friends, and at the other schools as well, Eastside students will be paired with a buddy and fully participate in the school day – going to class, eating lunch and engaging in another activities on the schedule. “We want them to understand the school, and the community, better,” Huxtable says.
One of the challenges the students will face is that the schools have different curriculums, so Eastside students might not be familiar with the content being taught at the school they’re visiting.
To prepare for that, APEX director Becky Hamilton says, Eastside is helping its students to develop skills so they can more easily adapt to the different settings. “We’re working with them on how to ask good questions, how to keep a discussion going.”
“We stress problem-solving, critical thinking,” says Emily Amendum, acting head of Sanford’s Middle School, “so they will be able to participate even if they’ve missed the content.”
Adds Mark Anderson, Sanford’s head of school: “It’s not so much the content. The education is going to come from the experience, gearing themselves up, figuring out ultimately where they would like this to lead.”
Part of the process for Eastside students, Bass says, will be a debriefing session after each monthly visit, giving them time to discuss what they liked or didn’t like, whether or not they felt comfortable.
Students participating in APEX have no guarantee of gaining admission, officials at the partnering independent schools say.
But, Hamilton says, “the academics we’re offering here will get our students to the level where they can be competitive on the entrance exams, and score highly on them.”
Hamilton, who arrived at Eastside in May after completing nearly three years as an English language arts specialist in the Appoquinimink School District, guides a program housed in portable classrooms that formerly were used for a prekindergarten program. The space became available when the prekindergarten program was closed. (Many of the children in the prekindergarten moved into a similar program at the Kingswood Community Center.) Coincidentally, Hamilton learned about the APEX opening after hearing a talk at her church by Logan Herring, Kingswood’s executive director, about the Reach Riverside redevelopment project, which he is also leading.
“I wasn’t looking for a job, but the job description matched my background. I applied on a whim, filed the application at midnight and got a call at 8 the next morning to set up an interview,” she says.
The APEX curriculum covers the same content delivered to other Eastside students, but it’s accelerated by one year. The current sixth graders represent the program’s first full cohort. The smaller group of seventh and eighth graders is working together on the eighth-grade curriculum, with the eighth graders moving at a faster pace, Hamilton says.
The program aims to enroll about 16 students per grade. After building full cohorts in sixth through eighth grade, a fifth-grade program may be added, she says.
Of the 16 sixth graders currently in the program, only six attended Eastside last year. Most of the others transferred from nearby public schools. The student traveling the greatest distance is likely Bass’s son, Gabe, who was enrolled in the Appoquinimink School District last year.
“There are only three grades in this building, and the classes are smaller. We get closer to the teachers and we get to know the other kids better,” Gabe Bass says.
He’s particularly interested in his language development class, an exploratory class that examines languages from different parts of the world and the role of languages in cultural development. One day last week the class was learning to read words in Swahili. Later in the year, students will explore Mandarin and Arabic before dipping into more extensive lessons in basic French and Spanish.
Across the hall, in social studies, teacher David Everhart’s students were cutting and shaping pieces of construction paper to depict forests, mountain ranges and other topographical features of a three-dimensional world map. “We’re doing fun work,” says Erin Hubbard-Witcher, who transferred to Eastside from Edison Charter School. “It’s interesting, nothing boring – and most of it is useful.”
As APEX develops, more features will be added. This year’s program includes a lecture series – roughly two per month – that will bring government, community and business leaders, including Sens. Tom Carper and Chris Coons, Longwood Foundation President There du Pont and Philadelphia Eagles general manager Howie Roseman to the school to meet with students. (The connection to Roseman comes through Bass, who served as an instructional consultant to the football team in 2014 and 2015 before taking his position at Eastside.) Students serving as buddies at the independent schools will be invited to the lecture series.
Eastside is also developing a partnership with Delaware FAME, an acronym for the Delaware Forum to Advance Minorities in Engineering. Next summer, and after school next year, FAME will offer enrichment programs at Eastside. It is also building a relationship with LYTE Delaware (Leading Youth Through Empowerment), an academic and mentoring program that helps low-income, minority youth prepare for admission to competitive high schools and supports them on their journey to college.
Also under consideration are ideas on bringing students and teachers from the independent schools to Eastside to participate in activities.
“It would be great for our teachers to learn from their peers at Eastside,” says Matt Twyman, Tower Hill’s associate director of admissions. “Our collective vision is to have more than once a month interaction.”
As sixth graders, the Eastside students are just developing an interest in high school and haven’t formed opinions on what school they would like to attend. In the past few years, most Eastside grads have moved on to traditional public high schools, charters and vo-tech schools, with a few entering private schools like Tower Hill or Catholic schools like Salesianum or St. Elizabeth. Still under discussion for the APEX students is whether they will visit the same independent school for three years or choose a different one each year. Rotating among the schools might help them make a more informed high school choice, Hamilton says.
While high school may be a remote blip on a sixth-grader’s radar, that doesn’t mean their parents aren’t thinking ahead.
“My father just asked me about where I want to go to college,” noted Hubbard-Witcher, who anticipates a career as a cosmetologist. “I said, ‘Dad, I just started middle school. Calm down.’”