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Successful start: Junior high marks end of inaugural school year

It was the first of its kind in Georgia and was the largest building project ever undertaken in McDuffie County. After its first year in business, the Thomson-McDuffie Junior High School appears to be accomplishing everything it was designed for.

"We began at ground zero with no other model in the state from which to pull ideas, schedules or routines, but we have made it through the year and can look back with pride at our accomplishments and successes and know that in McDuffie County, we have started something great, new and prosperous for future students," Principal Steve Rhodes said.

The school is the only one in the state that serves only eighth and ninth grade students. The McDuffie County Board of Education decided on the concept several years ago as part of their goal to increase the graduation rate in McDuffie County. Research shows that students who successfully complete the ninth grade are more apt to stay in school all the way through 12th grade. Having only two grades in the facility that holds 850 students allowed more flexibility in course schedules.

"With an additional 40 hours of seat time for our ninth graders versus the high school's block schedule, students in grade nine have had more time in class and we feel this has led to observed achievement gains from the students," Dr. Rhodes said.

And the numbers prove it worked. Compared to 2008 scores, ninth graders in McDuffie County increased their Criterion Referenced Competency Test scores four percentage points in English and seven percentage points in biology. Due to Georgia's roll-out of a new math curriculum in grade nine, no results were reported this year for that subject.

Eighth graders had an increase of six percentage points in reading CRCT scores, five percent in language arts, three percent in math and four percent in science. Eighth grade writing scores were eight percent higher than other eighth grade schools in the CSRA.

In addition to the extended instructional hours, Dr. Rhodes attributes the success to meetings held throughout the year between students and teachers to review quarterly and annual achievement goals, and between teachers and administrators to review achievement data, attendance and instructional concerns.

Although Special Purpose Local Option Sales Taxes coupled with bonds were used to fund the $17,010,000 building, those funds could not be used to pay the faculty. Eighth grade teachers were transferred from Thomson Middle School and ninth grade teachers from Thomson High School. Teachers of elective courses, such as band, music, computer and others, divided their time between the schools.

"The remarkable thing was the meshing of our faculty and staff," Dr. Rhodes said. "We actually had faculties from two schools join together with distinctly different levels of experience, training and ideas to unite with one mission in mind to assist the transition of students to high school."

The transition to junior high school was a little stressed for everyone at the beginning of the school year when construction and equipment delivery delays prevented the State Fire Marshal from granting a Certificate of Occupancy until exactly one week before the first day of school. The staff or faculty was not allowed in the building before then to set up the rooms.

"The success during our first year has been truly amazing and has moved quickly," Dr. Rhodes said. "It seems like only yesterday we were running to get things set up and in place... for the arrival of students."

Although it was still being completed as school began, Dr. Rhodes said there only were two "kinks" to work out with the new facility - a sewerage drain issue and a gym floor finish - and both of those have been resolved.

The 139,000 square-foot floor plan includes five wings with 14-foot wide halls and approximately 65 classrooms. The facility played host to a variety of functions during its first year, including the Georgia School Boards regional meeting, the McDuffie Teacher of the Year banquet, the McDuffie Teacher Retirement Banquet, a regional meeting of hearing impaired students from around the CSRA and the system-wide teacher interview screenings.

"So we have really been proud to show-off the fantastic building and to use its size and design to advantage," Dr. Rhodes said.

All that space seems to be better for the students, also. Dr. Rhodes said they saw a major decline in disciplinary infractions at TMJHS compared with previous years at TMS and THS.

"At an age when student hormones are often intense, their tempers sometimes flare and we see disciplinary issues," he said. "But fortunately, we were able to work with students to resolve problems before they worsened. This proactive approach, coupled with having only two grades at one school site, has been extremely beneficial. ... When we look back at Thomson-McDuffie Junior High School, McDuffie County residents certainly have a lot of things of which to be proud."

Web posted on Thursday, June 25, 2009

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