The Ottumwa Courier

February 11, 2014

Fearless fifth-graders

Courier staff writer

---- — OTTUMWA — Next year, fifth-graders from several schools around town will be funneled into Evans Middle School. On Tuesday, students from Horace Mann got a sneak peak.

"How many of you are nervous about coming to Evans?" asked Principal Dave Harper.

About 35 out of 45 students raised their hands.

"I guarantee you'll be less nervous after today," Harper said.

The children, two classes of fifth-graders, were in the school auditorium. Harper and guidance counselor Jerry Miller had already been on a tour of elementary schools introducing themselves to fifth-graders. Getting them to the building, one school at a time, said Harper, helps make the transition easier in the fall.

For years, Ottumwa elementary schools had K-6. Some parents expressed grave concerns when the district decided the junior high school level would begin at sixth grade. Even before the first sixth-graders showed up at Evans in 2009, the district said they had responded to parent fears.

A $12 million building project completed in 2009 not only gave the middle school more space, it gave district elementary school more space because an entire grade level was gone. But more importantly for parents, the expansion at Evans created a sheltered area for the children's first year at the middle school.

Sixth-graders have their own entrance, a separate sixth-grade wing, their own lunch periods. For the most part, Harper and Miller told kids Tuesday, they would not be interacting with the older kids. A few locations, like the counseling office and the media center (library), are common areas.

Ottumwa Superintendent Davis Eidahl in a previous interview said the idea to make EMS a sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade building started receiving serious attention in 2005; it was not a spur-of-the-moment decision.

One girl told Miller on Tuesday she was worried about getting lost.

"There are so many twists and turns," agreed another girl.

"It'll take you two to three days and you'll know your way around," Miller reassured them.

Lunch will be different, too: There was only one school nutrition option at elementary school. But as long as they take a piece of fruit, they get five options at Evans Middle School. Fruit?

"You must take a piece of fruit," Miller said.

Miller and Harper, seeming perhaps a little embarrassed, explained that there is a state law requiring every student going through the lunch line to take a piece of fruit.

"If you don't take a piece of fruit, the [lunch workers] are going to send you back through the line," Miller said.

Signs in the cafeteria exclaim, "Don't forget fruit!"

And while kids are more protected in their first year at Evans, they will also have more responsibility. For example, Harper said, children can now bring cell phones to school. They can use them between classes or during breaks but are otherwise instructed to keep the phones in their lockers.

The students seemed excited at the prospect of having their own lockers, though some worried about how to work the combination. Miller told them they'd do fine.

The bus situation might be a bit overwhelming at first; elementary schools have as few as three yellow buses pull up after school. Evans has 14.

"If bus 33 is your bus, and it's the second bus in line, it will always be the second bus in line," Harper told the Horace Mann kids. "I know we're throwing a lot at you; don't stress. We don't expect you to remember it all right now. We'll see you again at the open house in May."

Extra Questions from Kids

Do you know my sister? Do you have a library? What if you don't want fruit? Why are the lockers so tiny? Do you know MY sister?

Here are some of the answers, not necessarily in order: "Yes, I do." "We have a lot of students who [need locker space], but we've never had a student who didn't have enough room for their books." "Yes, it's called the media center; you'll see that on your tour." "Yes, but let's save those questions; if we name every student we know, we're not going to get to other questions." "Please. Just take the fruit."

— News reporter Mark Newman is on Twitter @couriermark