LIVINGSTON, NJ — At the invitation of Superintendent Dr. Matthew Block, who has made a point each month to highlight “some of the great things that are happening around the district” in light of the pandemic, Mt. Pleasant Middle School (MPMS) Principal Bronawyn O’Leary and Heritage Middle School (HMS) Principal Shawn Kelly recently presented an overview of their coordinated effort to ensure a smooth “Junior Lancer” transition from MPMS to HMS for all students.

Block explained that O’Leary has “forged a great partnership” with Kelly during her first year as principal at MPMS because both are committed to creating “a cohesive experience for [Livingston’s] sixth, seventh and eighth graders where they can feel a connection between both buildings.”

“As you all know, we merged last year, and I was overly excited to become a Junior Lancer,” O’Leary said during last week’s Livingston Board of Education (LBOE) meeting. “Coming from the high school, it was kind of one of my goals to make us the Junior Lancers and make the whole secondary situation cohesive, so I am definitely thrilled.”

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O’Leary explained that the transition process begins in sixth grade, where students are divided into four interdisciplinary academic teams that "make a bigger place seem like a smaller one” as the students adjust to having multiple teachers throughout the year and engage in changing classes for the first time.

Also for the first time as they enter MPMS, students are able to make course selections based upon their areas of interest, such as the world language or area of music they want to focus on; have their progress tracked on the Genesis program; utilize Schoology as a learning platform; increase their use of technology to communicate with others; and experience their first five-cycle course rotation between business, family and consumer science, technology, music and art.

According to O’Leary, one main goal for the academic, personal and social-emotional learning (SEL) growth that begins at MPMS is for students to “start developing ownership of their learning in conjunction with their teachers.” The two middle schools are also encouraging more open communication between the school and home.

“The students are starting to Email their teachers and get a little more comfortable with that,” said O’Leary. “At the start of this school year, the students were practicing their Emails and sending them out to different staff members. They did receive about 40 beautifully crafted emails, and I did respond to all of them, so they did a great job.”

MPMS is also providing opportunities for students to learn and utilize their independent study skills as well as work one-on-one or in small groups with staff members. O’Leary explained that an enrichment period at MPMS “really helps to set the tone for the students with their independent reading as well as reaching out to the teachers for that extra help that they might need and/or the teachers reaching out to them.”

O’Leary added that another goal between the two middle schools is to help students balance extracurricular activities with their academic workload.

“In the idea of balancing our workload and extracurricular activities, MPM offers so many opportunities that you will then see carry over to HMS,” she said, noting that popular options currently include a book club, multiple music opportunities, literary magazines and newspapers, an “Earthkeepers” club, student council, intramural activities and more. "This is always about finding balance. Our kids have so many opportunities for things inside and outside of school, and we need to just make sure that they're balancing appropriately. We are proud to have supportive teachers and school counselors that understand that balance and help them navigate through those experiences when difficulty arises.”

Together, O’Leary and Kelly have worked to implement a new program called Junior Lancer Leaders, which hosts meetings periodically throughout the year in order to re-establish goals, celebrate “Lancer Pride” recipients and bring community members together with the goal of better understanding "how our differences unite us as one school community."

“The Lancer Advisory Program places emphasis on our character pillars—which include caring, respect, responsibility and trustworthiness within our community—while the school counseling department is also there to provide support and services in a variety of ways, focusing on the social-emotional health and well-being of our kids,” she said. “The focus is on the whole kiddo. Over the course of the year, each of our advisory lessons builds on relationship skills, responsible decision-making, social awareness, self management and self awareness."

O’Leary noted that the school-counseling department is currently preparing a program for sixth graders that will “introduce mental health, reduce stigma and provide a safe space for kids to learn and ask questions.”

“Helping our young middle school students to recognize and gain awareness on how they feel through that self reflection will be key to helping them build self-confidence as they move forward,” she said.

Beyond counseling and programming, the connection between MPMS and HMS has also been strengthened through support from the recently merged Home School Associations (HSA), whose members act as liaisons between the school and the community and develop initiatives to support staff members and students at both middle schools.

As Kelly took over the presentation to discuss the continuity of programming at HMS, he explained that the Mt. Pleasant HSA and Heritage HSA have merged to form one Livingston Middle Schools HSA that will work to ensure that all students are “supported in every way possible through fundraisers and different types of fun activities.” He also stated that the HSA has shown a great appreciation for the staff members at both schools and a commitment to making sure staff members are valued and celebrated.

From his perspective at HMS, Kelly said the counselor-looping program has been essential to supporting the social, emotional and academic needs of middle school students over the last three years.

“Although it might be a little challenging on the counselors moving from one building to the next from one year to the next, we see how important it has been in fostering the growth socially, emotionally and academically for our students as they come to Heritage Middle School,” he said. “The fact that our kids used to get kind of lost in transition between sixth and seventh grade and now knowing that they have a person who knows them as people and as learners and as individuals has really, really made a huge impact on the success for the transition between MPM and Heritage Middle School.”

The addition of a Student Assistance Counselor who has partnered with the school counseling department and other staff members to ensure that they are fostering the development of coping skills, SEL, mental health, substance abuse awareness and more has also been essential to the continuity between the two middle schools and making sure that students “continue to learn and grow,” Kelly said.

He also expanded on the small-group advisory lessons that are being held daily during homeroom at HMS.  

“One of the things that our counselors are constantly working on is taking the pulse of our staff to make sure that the lessons that we are creating and delivering to the students are ones that we make sure really target what their needs are at that moment in time,” said Kelly, adding as an example that the topic for the following day's lesson was stress management.

Another successful program that continues as the students transition to HMS is dividing the grade into four teams for the school year so that each student is working with the same five-or-six teachers within a group of slightly more than 100 classmates.

“One of our biggest focuses between grades six and eight is continuing with the development of the core competencies that connect to the SEL of our students,” he said. “Making sure that they have and develop and understand empathy; that they have and make good, smart and healthy choices in their lives; working on interpersonal communication skills and working on relationship skills; building up resiliency and being able to rise to challenges that they're going to face academically, personally, socially and emotionally throughout their lives; and also being able to reflect upon those.

“I think one of the things we do a really good job of at Heritage is just making sure that the students are always looking at where they are now and how they got there and where they want to be moving forward—whether that be academically in terms of how they may perform on an assessment, or just looking at setting up goals for themselves. And our counseling department does an excellent job of making sure that we are […] touching upon all of those things.”

Kelly added that the middle schools are also looking to partner with the health and physical education department to make sure all students are being provided with resources and outlets to help them “navigate the challenging war that we're all living in at this point in time.”

Academically, Kelly stated that HMS students are provided “a little bit of flexibility in how they want to design their schedules.”

“That starts really from when they come over from sixth grade to HMS and they pick a language of a program of study from one of our four options, which then continue at Livingston High School,” he said, noting that HMS offers Spanish, French, Italian and/or Mandarin Chinese. “They basically will take that level-one high school program and break it down over the course of two years for our students. In doing so, that also gives them an opportunity to advance and move on to level two or level two honors when they enroll in high school, or if they want to choose a different language course of study, they could do that…

“Mathematics is the only core academic area that we really level for our students, and this also begins at MPM and moves over to HMS. One of the really nice things that I've seen in the past four-plus years that I've been here is the growth and evolution of using data to drive these decisions that we're making for our students—making sure that we're putting kids where they are at that moment in time and also being able to allow them to grow.”

Other opportunities for academic growth at HMS continue with the elective program and extended enrichment opportunities in the fields of art, family and consumer science, music, technology education and more.

“One of the things that I'm very proud of is the different co-curricular clubs and opportunities that our students to have the opportunity to engage in,” said Kelly, adding that hundreds of students attended this year’s student-led co-curricular fair, which was held both virtually and in person outdoors. “We really do have something for everyone…It’s one of the different ways that we try to show and foster and support that growth and development in our students and give them that confidence to be leaders in our school and in our surrounding community.”

Kelly expressed gratitude toward O’Leary for her commitment to their partnership and for being the uniting factor between the two schools to ensure that “the whole child really gets the opportunity to experience that middle school experience.”

“We remain committed to that, and we also look to continue to expand and grow upon that,” said Kelly, who also thanked Block, the LBOE, the central office administration and others who have supported this joint venture between the two schools.

On behalf of the LBOE, board president Ronnie Konner thanked both principals for all that they and their staff are providing to Livingston’s pre-teens every day.

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