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MUMS ready for major changes

NEW MIDDLEBURY UNION Middle School Principal Michael Dudek is making ready for a student body that this fall will, for the first time, include the Addison Central School District’s sixth-graders. Independent photo/John Flowers

We want to create a school community, but we also have that middle school mindset that we’re a team that’s grade-specific — building a community within a community, but also thinking about how we do this intentionally with grades 6-8.
— Principal Michael Dudek

MIDDLEBURY — “Back to school day.”

Exciting and a little scary for students, even under normal circumstances.

But Middlebury Union Middle School on Aug. 25 will add an additional, unprecedented wrinkle or two to the beginning of this new academic year when it greets an incoming class that will include sixth-graders from the Addison Central School District member towns of Bridport, Cornwall, Middlebury, Ripton, Salisbury, Shoreham and Weybridge.

Oh, and if adding a new grade weren’t enough, MUMS is embarking on its 2021-2022 journey with a new principal, and a new curriculum based on the International Baccalaureate program, referred to as IB.

New MUMS Principal Michael Dudek is confident his educators and students will embrace and thrive with the changes.

“My mantra is to know and understand there’s change, which to me is an exciting adventure,” he said during a recent interview. “With every challenge, there’s opportunity. So I try to maintain that positive, strength-based element of seeing what that opportunity is, while also acknowledging there’s definitely anxiety with change. But there’s also an excitement of, ‘What’s this new MUMS going to be all about?’”

Many of the MUMS changes are outlined in a “Welcome Back” booklet that can be found at tinyurl.com/npjyczf7. The booklet contains info on how incoming students will be taught, what will be expected of them, and what MUMS has to offer in terms of class selection, sports and extracurriculars.

Dudek anticipates a MUMS enrollment of around 378 students this fall, which includes an incoming sixth-grade class of approximately 125, plus seventh and eighth grades. The transition of grade 6 to MUMS has been discussed for the past three years, and was promoted by district officials as a way to more effectively implement the “Middle Years Program” section of the IB curriculum. This section of IB features courses that prioritize such elements as hands-on learning and real-world experience that apply to children in grades 6-8. Officials reasoned it made sense to bring sixth-graders into the middle-school fold, rather than have them take Middle Years courses at their respective elementary schools.

Advocates said specific advantages of a 6-8 middle school include:

•  Greater equity in level of instruction and programs including science, world language, music (band and chorus), life skills, social-emotional learning and supports.

•  Greater levels of independence a year earlier.

•  Connection with a more diverse and larger group of peers.

•  Access to additional extracurricular activities including clubs and sports.

•  Additional time to develop identity with the school and for the faculty to get to know and work with students.

Students will attend each of their classes every other day, or two to three times per week.

MUMS has for many years organized its students into teams that stay together for instructional and recreational purposes. That tradition will continue, with sixth-graders forming the “Madagascar” team, seventh-graders as “Acadia,” and eighth-graders as “Delta.”

Teammates got an early opportunity to meet each other on campus on June 2 for “move-up day.”

Once school starts next week, each MUMS faculty member will meet on a daily basis with 10 students, all in the same grade level. The faculty member will act as each student’s point person for questions, concerns, or celebrations that may arise during the year. There will also be a 30-minute extended “Teacher Advisory” every week to give students and staff time to build meaningful relationships and participate in fun and engaging community-building activities.

Dudek said there was adequate space within the MUMS building to accommodate the extra grade, without having to put up partitions or combining classes. Every classroom is being used and the gym, library and/or cafeteria are available for large student gatherings.

MUMS officials will have to walk a fine line of promoting unity among the student population, but doing it in a way that recognizes that sixth-graders are different from eight-graders, both physically and emotionally.

Grades 6, 7 and 8 will each occupy their own sections of the U-shaped MUMS building, and they’ll have separate lunch periods.

“We want to create a school community, but we also have that middle school mindset that we’re a team that’s grade-specific — building a community within a community, but also thinking about how we do this intentionally with grades 6-8,” Dudek said.

There will be no real mixing of students, except for occasional study halls, arrival, dismissal and club activities.

At the same time, older students will be asked to make the middle school transition easier for their younger peers.

“I’m looking at my eighth-grade students and saying, ‘You’re the leaders in this building, we have a new group of sixth and seventh grade, how do we welcome them into our building?” Dudek said.

MUMS will hold morning “advisory” meetings where students will be able express their concerns or fears, so the administration can address them.

Peter Burrows, ACSD superintendent, believes Dudek, MUMS Vice Principal Andrew Conforti and the other district educators have laid a solid foundation to bring in a bigger student body.

“The three-year middle school model will be an opportunity for students to really get grounded in the MUMS experience,” he said. “Our sixth-graders will come together from across all towns in ACSD to learn and grow as a community. They will have access to exciting courses and activities in a middle-school setting that is focused on student success and wellness.”

Reporter John Flowers is at johnf@addisonindependent.com.

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