EDGEWATER — Well before noon on a recent Tuesday, 33 soon-to-be eighth graders are dancing back-to-back while Katy Perry’s “Firework” blares from the speakers.
When the music stops, the students scramble to find a new partner. The student left standing without a new mate must dance alone on a chair in the center of the gym.
“You must dance like you have never danced before,” Michael James, the principal of the newly reconfigured Jefferson Junior-Senior High School, said to each student who shyly climbed on top of the chair.
Backward dancing was just one of a few activities James and his eighth graders participated in earlier this month as part of Jefferson’s new-student orientation.
Most of the seventh and eighth graders enrolling at Jefferson would have attended Wheat Ridge 5-8. But that school was closed due to chronic low performance on state tests. So instead of attending the Wheat Ridge school, the middle schoolers are joining their high school peers at Jefferson.
The school shuffle is part of a larger programmatic overhaul at a cluster of schools in Jefferson County that serve mostly low-income and Latino students. Most of those schools are in Edgewater, a tiny municipality that borders Denver’s west side, and have bounced on and off the state’s accountability watch list for several years.
Jeffco Public Schools officials hope the changes that include expanding a dual-language program, more cooperation between schools, and a project-based learning curriculum that stretches from kindergarten through high school, will be enough to consistently improve student learning.
The new-student orientation at Jefferson Junior-Senior High was a symbolic first step toward those ideas becoming a reality.
“I want them to connect fun activities to Jefferson,” said Principal James. “I know there is a lot of great learning to be had, but we’re going to have a fun time as well.”
During the three day orientation, the new students also got a tour of the school from student leaders, set personal and academic goals, and learned what teachers and counselors think it takes to be a successful Saint, the school’s mascot.
“There’s no slack time when school starts,” Angelique “Doc” Acevedo-Barron, one of the school’s deans, told the eighth graders. “You must be able to pass each of your classes. There’s no more social promotion.”
As part of the changes at Jefferson, student progress will be closely monitored by teams of teachers. Students who fall behind will be given extra tutoring and other opportunities to catch up. That includes an extra hour of learning each day for seventh and eighth graders, Acevedo-Barron said to some student moans.
“We’re going to make it happen,” Acevedo-Barron said. “We’re going to nip any slacking in the bud. We’re about school.”
Other opportunities those junior high students will have at Jefferson that they did not have at Wheat Ridge include more electives and greater math support, said James. Each math classroom will have a teacher and between three and five tutors to assist students. The students will also have greater access to support services and James said he hopes to have more regular conversations with families.
Some teachers from Wheat Ridge 5-8 are following their students to Jefferson. Tom McLoughlin is one of them. He helped James during orientation week.
“We’re really excited to be working for Michael James,” McLoughlin said. “There’s already a lot of buy-in from the current staff and students.”
McLoughlin said that he thinks combining the middle school and high school will encourage younger students, especially eighth graders, to stay focused.
“They won’t have that ‘king of the school’ mentality anymore,” McLoughlin said. “It will be be nice for them to see their older peers go on and graduate. As well as some who aren’t. They’ll be able to see that difference.”
Students at orientation were equally shy and excited.
Angelo Hulse, an incoming seventh grader, said he’s ready to learn.
“I just want to know how to get good grades so I can go onto college and play college football,” he said. “And we get to have lockers and there will be more fun stuff to do.”
Destanie Allen, meanwhile, said she was excited to meet new friends. But as a new ninth grader, she was well aware of the new social pecking order at the 7-12 school.
“We’re right in the middle,” she said.
Back in the gymnasium, James pulls his eighth graders in for a huddle and ice cream bars.
“Come with a positive idea of what this place is and about who you are,” he said. “We can have a lot fun. If you’re not afraid to have fun, you will. Don’t worry about what other people think of you.”