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Athey Creek eliminates bells between classes, focuses on smooth transitions
by: vern uyetake Just two weeks into the new school year, Athey Creek Middle School Principal Carol Egan is already seeing changes in the school’s culture after eliminating ringing bells between classes and focusing on different character-building exercises each day.

Not that Athey Creek Middle School wasn't a safe and nurturing environment before, but this year, the school is working on creating an even stronger culture of caring and community.

Last May, staff at the school decided to re-engage themselves in building student character and creating the 'ideal community for kids,' said Principal Carol Egan.

The school formed a 10-member summer planning committee, representing all grade levels at the school. Before school started, the group met five times and looked at each day in the school schedule.

One area the committee zeroed in on was advisory times - called Ohana at the middle school. Ohana is Hawaiian for 'family.'

The committee restructured the 30-minute daily Ohana times and gave each day a focus. On Mondays, teachers work on team building. Tuesdays and Wednesdays are character-building days. New this year is a school-wide reading of the book 'The Giver,' by Lois Lowry, which teaches about citizenship and is linked to the Pledge of Allegiance. Thursdays are for academic support and Fridays are grade-level times where classes can talk about specific topics, such as upcoming field trips.

'We are creating better learning conditions for children,' Deputy Superintendent Jane Stickney said.

No longer saved by the bell

Another change at the school this year is how students transition from one class to the next.

'One topic broached was how our kids use their time,' Egan said.

In the past, like most traditional schools, a bell rang at the end of each class. Students then had a few minutes to get to their lockers, get a drink of water and get to their next class. There, students would proceed to sit at their desks, talk with friends or just zone out until another bell rang to start class.

This year, there are no bells. Teachers use their watches or the clocks on their computers to watch the time. When there is about a minute of class left, teachers start wrapping discussion up and then quietly release the students. Kids still have time to go to their lockers or get to the next class, but there is a little more urgency. When students reach their next class, they are immediately put to work on an assignment - a problem or a worksheet.

Egan said the school is working on 'that shift of being purposeful of how we move through the building.'

'It's going to take as long as it's going to take to get to the next classroom,' Stickney said. 'But the expectation is, you get to work when you get to the classroom.'

Stay in 'learning frame of mind'

The hope is smoother transitions for the students so they can remain in the learning frame of mind.

'Students are taking responsibility for their learning,' Egan said. 'It feels more purposeful. We are more at a pace of a middle school child's energy. We are more on their clock than on ours.'

Not only are the students adjusting to the new schedules and systems, but all staff members had to agree to the new routines.

Egan stressed a more efficient use of time and the ability of students to learn at a different rate.

'We are building this common language,' Egan said. 'It feels really great this year, and I feel it really has to do with this cultural shift.'