Urbana’s plan for state’s lone sixth-grade school: ‘Create something fantastic and meaningful’

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URBANA — Sixth-grade learning centers may be uncommon to nonexistent among school systems in Illinois, but Urbana district officials have looked at several of them in other states.

“It’s definitely not the norm in Illinois, so we are doing something different here,” Superintendent Jennifer Ivory-Tatum said Wednesday, a day after the school board voted to change the current Wiley Elementary School to a site for just sixth-graders starting in the 2025-26 school year.

The Wiley site will be a part of Urbana Middle School — just in a different building — and the plan is intended to reduce crowding in the middle school and help ease sixth-graders’ transition from elementary to middle school.

“I think in Urbana, we pride ourselves on thinking outside the box and being responsive to our students’ needs,” Ivory-Tatum said.

A lot of planning has already gone into the move to establish a separate school space for sixth-graders, and more work will be done over the next year and a half to prepare for the transition, Ivory-Tatum said.

“I think we have the perfect team right now who can really create something fantastic and meaningful for our students,” she said.

Asbestos removal is set to begin this month on the Wiley building at 1602 S. Anderson St., U.

Before sixth-graders move in, the building is going to get a face-lift, with new windows, lighting and plumbing, plus a fresh look for the classrooms.

Among the reasons Ivory-Tatum is hopeful the new model will be successful — not only for sixth-graders but the seventh- and eighth-graders remaining in the Urbana Middle School building — is not just that it will reduce crowding, but will also allow for a more intentional focus on the age groups in each of the three grades and the needs of those students.

The removal of about 300 sixth-graders to the Wiley building will leave about 600 seventh- and eighth-graders in the current middle school building at 1201 S. Vine St., U.

Currently, sixth-graders come to the middle school from their elementary schools throughout the city, and bring with them different backgrounds and a maturity level that’s different from students in the two older grades, Ivory-Tatum said, and the district wants to foster a sense of caring and belonging for them.

“They’ll be coming together as a very close-knit group,” she said.

The district wants to help build their independence skills, conflict resolution skills and thinking skills, she said.

It has tried to cocoon sixth-graders at the middle school building as much as possible, but common areas are shared by older students.

“It’s hard to talk to them about what they should be doing as sixth-graders when they see seventh- and eighth-graders making different choices,” she said.

Ivory-Tatum said she realizes this is going to mean change, but that’s not a bad thing.

“Different can be exciting and new,” she said.

School board President Paul Poulosky said his vote in favor of converting Wiley to a sixth-grade learning center came down to following the recommendation of a committee that met, studied and discussed this issue all summer long.

Tuesday’s board vote was close (4-3), he said, and “it was still a tough decision.”

Poulosky said the Wiley building won’t require its own principal, though it might involve the hiring of a few support staff members. It’s likely that faculty members who work with students in sixth through eighth grades will go back and forth between the two sites, which are about a half-mile apart, he said.

With Wiley being designated for sixth-graders, Poulosky said he thinks it’s fine for the district to have five elementary schools.

“If you look at the overall elementary population in Urbana, it’s been flat,” he said.

In the past five years, the district has added 16 classrooms at two of its elementary schools, half at Thomas Paine and half at Yankee Ridge, he said.

One benefit of the plan for a sixth-grade learning center listed in the committee’s final report, dated Aug. 22, is that curriculum can be tailored to specifically meet the needs of those students, “considering their developmental stage and learning requirements.”

Plus, the report said, “moving from elementary school to middle school can be challenging for some students. A sixth-grade center may provide extra support during this transitional period to help students adjust to the new academic environment and expectations.”

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