LHISD shifts to new middle school model



A lot will be changing for the middle grade students in Liberty Hill next school year.

Gone will be the intermediate school model of fifth and sixth graders on one campus and seventh and eighth on another.

With the opening of Santa Rita Middle School in August, LHISD will officially make the transition to the middle school model where fifth graders will join the elementary campuses throughout the district, and sixth through eighth grades will be split between the new campus and Liberty Hill Middle School – currently the junior high.

But this change involves more than a boundary line, new bus routes and shifting teachers, and Principals Josh Curtis and Travis Motal – at the helms of the two middle schools – are working hard with planners and staff to make a smooth transition.

Each campus will be unique, according to the administration and staff, but the philosophy is one of providing the same quality education to all middle schoolers across the district – “two campuses, one goal”.

“The district put the middle school design team together to try to create a focus across the middle school curriculum,” Motal said. “Both of us are anticipating our campus will have its own identity, we’ve talked about that back and forth, and we will do some things the same, but we don’t have to be the exact same.”

The first step in setting up LHISD for success with the new middle school plan was to have the right leadership in place, and Superintendent Steve Snell believes Curtis and Motal are the right pair.

“Both of those guys have that experience with that secondary middle level,” Snell said. “What I’m most excited about is our middle school design team because we don’t just say this is how we do school and you just do it with three grades now instead of two. Middle school has a specific concept with it and we want to make sure we have the two best middle schools in the state. We’ve gotten teachers and administrators involved, just talking about what it’s like to be a middle school kid, how we can support them, how we can make sure we have a service component to our schools, how we empower students to be responsible.”

The plan is to make opportunities and facilities equal, but also to make sure that the curriculum is successful across both campuses. For that, the two principals will have teachers working together across campuses as well as internally.

“We want the teachers to be not only vertically aligned, but horizontally aligned,” Curtis said. “We’ve talked about time that people from each campus can get together and plan with each other so that if you’re getting an education at Liberty Hill Middle School it’s the exact same education at Santa Rita Middle School, it’s just going to be with different personalities in the classroom.

“At the end of the day we’re all still Panthers and we’re all still preparing them to head to Liberty Hill High School,” he added. “Other than our leadership styles, we want to make both middle schools as close to the same experience as possible.”

Putting sixth graders on the campus with older students can be a positive for the maturing process during such a critical time.

“Middle school is such a formative time,” Motal said. “There’s just a whole lot where kids learn about themselves, their identities, who their friends are. Their friend groups change so much from elementary through middle and they get interested in a fine arts path, an athletic path, while in elementary school you don’t have all those options to really find your voice.”

Curtis agreed, having much experience with sixth graders in the intermediate school set up.

“Now the sixth graders do see themselves as probably older than they should because they’re the oldest kids on the campus,” Curtis said. “I think it will be great for their maturity development to see the transition and the maturation process. I think it will be beneficial to them.”

Adding that one additional year in middle school also opens many doors for building programs and expanding opportunities.

“It is only one more year, but that one year is critical,” Curtis said. “We can build programs on our campuses and the sixth graders will see what the seventh and eighth graders are doing. Right now, sixth graders really have no clue what seventh and eighth graders do, so it will be an easier transition if you want to build a technology or band or theater program. Whatever it is, those sixth graders will be in the building and see what the older kids are doing and take an interest in it.”

Beginning next year, sixth graders will also get more exposure to many programs already in place.

“The big one for sixth graders will be the technology part because they’ll get to see what the tech apps or intro to computer science from the sixth-grade perspective,” Curtis said. “Ag will be a big one because in sixth grade they have no idea what goes on in Ag, but being on the campus they will get to see the projects the Ag students are doing. Having those younger kids see what the other kids are doing on campus will make a huge difference.”

Snell said there will many new initiatives and opportunities as the district settles in to the new setup.

“Through the middle school we want to make sure we have that culture of excellence, but we’re going to do some creative things with scheduling, then teaming is a big part of middle school,” he said. “We’re looking to bring in some project-based learning, and some other things to really create a middle school experience.”

Once students reach seventh grade, failing grades can be costly as far as their ability to participate, and Motal thinks having the sixth graders on campus to see how that can hinder their participation will be a good thing.

“The first six weeks for us is always heartbreaking because kids are participating in different things then they miss out when they realize their grade really does count for their ability to participate,” Motal said. “Being able to really sit down with sixth graders and talk with them and explain how they would not be playing or participating is important for them to understand.”

Each of the two campuses will have its own identity, but Curtis and Motal are focused first on the unifying goal of all being Panthers and keeping the same values and goals for both.

The middle school design team included parent surveys, meetings with students and thorough collaboration between staff from both campuses.

“We made sure we got everyone’s voice in there to capture what everyone wants in Liberty Hill,” Curtis said. “Our number one goal as principals is that no matter what campus you go to you’re getting the best education you can get and best experiences you can get in Liberty Hill. Right now, what we’re both doing is preparing them to go to Liberty Hill High School and be Panthers. We want to make sure what we do we do the same so that when they get to high school they are entering as ninth grade Liberty Hill Panthers.”

That unity doesn’t mean that a little friendly competition will not be encouraged.

“Healthy competition is not bad,” Motal said. “To be able to go in and do your best doesn’t mean you’re not going to plan and work together, but you want some healthy competition to push each other and continue to get better. It is up to us as principals not to let that get out of hand. We’re still headed in the same direction.”

Curtis echoed Motal’s thoughts.

“If we’re going to be the two best middle schools in the state let’s go out and compete against each other, and at the end of it high five and say we got better today,” Curtis said. “We want the teachers to do the same thing in the classrooms. Challenging each other is not a bad thing.”

How the two principals prepare logistically for the new school year will be more different, with Curtis focused on settling in to a new campus and Motal on making adjustments to a familiar routine and structure.

Curtis is focused on just getting people into the new building as soon as he can.

“The plan is the classroom wing will be done in June so we’ll be able to get all the furniture in there,” Curtis said. “The number one thing is getting the staff in the building and getting them comfortable with it. Once the staff is comfortable and we create a vision and a culture of what we want Santa Rita Middle School to look like, then the kids come in and that’s the easy part.”

He also wants to ensure students have some familiarity with the campus before school starts.

“I’ve got to get the kids in the building before day one hits,” Curtis said. “We can’t roll up on Aug. 18 and be handing out schedules. My number one thing is we have to have some dates so the community can come in and see things.”

Motal has been slowly working on and sharing how things will change on the current junior high campus.

“My building has all the routines set,” Motal said. “We started back in February communicating with the staff about people moving rooms and being prepared for things. The last week in May is when I plan to announce what rooms teachers will move to, who will be on their team and all that. I feel like some of that stuff would take precedence now if we announced it, and we have to finish out the year first.”

The biggest challenge is how to separate sixth graders somewhat from the other grades. Even though he hopes the youngest students benefit from exposure to and interaction with older students, he said it’s best that there be some division.

“It’s not really set up to divide like that,” Motal said. “So we’re having to really think about different parts of the building where we can move people so we can keep sixth graders separate to allow them a more healthy transition.”

Both principals say their campus and staff will be ready and are looking forward to the new beginning.

“I’m really excited,” Curtis said. “I think it’s great for the students, I think it’s great for the community. I can’t wait to get in the building, get our staff and our students in there.”

For Motal, this is the logical next step in a growing school district.

“It makes sense to have pre-K through five and sixth through eighth,” Motal said. “That’s a traditional model around the area, plus it makes sense and will be much better for the students and their whole experience. I think it’s great for them. With Liberty Hill growing like it is we were going to have this challenge at some point and I think this is the time to do it.”