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AYER — One year ahead of the official formation of the Ayer-Shirley Regional School District, the middle-school merger between the Ayer and Shirley public schools is now complete — and it was no small undertaking.

The physical move of the Shirley fifth grade to the Lura White Elementary School, as well as that of grades six through eight from Ayer to Shirley, was in itself a huge task.

“We have to thank Bemis Associates,” said Ayer-Shirley Middle School Principal Brian Haas in his office recently. “They moved the entire Ayer Middle School to Shirley, and the fifth grade to Lura White. And we’d like to thank all of the custodial staff.”

Although merging two distinct middle schools into one over a summer had its challenges, Haas said, “a lot of the stars aligned. The right number of people retired, and the right number of people wanted to go to the elementary school. So we actually had to hire people…We didn’t have to let anyone go to make the region work.”

Besides moving things from one building to another, the middle-school staff had to reshuffle almost everything, he said, because the school went from four grades to three grades and is now utilizing all if its space.

New and improved course offerings

Another challenge for the staff was creating classes for new courses that did not previously exist, to form five core classes all year long. The core classes are math, English, science, social studies, and, for sixth grade, 21st-century literacies. Grades 7 and 8 have world language — a choice of Spanish or French.

The new schedule enables the school to provide Unified Arts (UA) — art, music, physical education/health, computer instruction, STEM (Technology), and band — plus Enrichment, which includes remedial services such as MCAS, math, and English language arts (ELA) tutoring, during the school day. Enrichment also provides students with the opportunity to do an exploratory or project-based learning.

“It is really a student-centered schedule,” said Haas. “Enrichment teachers can pick a topic that relates to the curriculum, such as (Computer Instructor) Barbara Dyer’s ‘School to Careers 101’ with eighth-grade Enrichment.” In that course, “students will build a small business on their own, figuring out what it takes to make it work — from career exploration, to a business plan, to finances.”

The 21st Century Literacies course for grade 6 is designed to prepare students for the skill set they will need to be competitive in today’s global economy. It was designed to help students develop critical-thinking skills and the ability to work collaboratively to create and produce innovative solutions to inquiry-based problems, and focuses on digital/media, communication, global, and cultural literacies.

Vice Principal Rich McGrath said that the course will use the technology that kids are already using today, and help to integrate social networking on the computer with education.

Media literacy with Shirley Public Access Cable (SPACO) Executive Director Lou Carreras will continue at the school as an “extra special” elective.

“We have a full-blown TV studio with Mac laptop computers, editing equipment and a green screen,” Haas stated proudly. “This is an elective most middle schools can’t do.”

Music at the Shirley Middle School was eliminated last year due to budget cuts, and in Ayer it was offered only one day a week. Now there will be music and band for all grades. Grades 7 and 8 will have band three out of six days during their Enrichment cycle, but because it did not fit into their schedule, sixth-grade students will have band after school.

“The long-term goal,” said Haas, “is to get that during the day schedule.”

The STEM program — science, technology, engineering and math — is one that evolved in Shirley. It consists of 12 computer modules and tutorials at two levels, and is being expanded to include more hands-on components. Topics include electronics, robotics, and solar power.

Helping students with social issues

Besides coordinating the move, designing the curriculum and schedule, getting rooms ready, and putting together teaching teams, Haas, McGrath, and the entire teaching staff spent the summer working on Developmental Designs.

Developmental Designs is an approach that offers a variety of strategies designed to keep students safe, connected, and engaged in learning. Haas and McGrath said that it helps teachers to meet the social, emotional, intellectual, and physical needs of their students, and to teach them social responsibility.

“We want (students) to be engaged and learning,” said Haas. “The entire sixth-grade team is trained in Developmental Designs, and within it there is an advisory group every Friday.”

During advisory, 12 to 15 students selected by the staff will meet with their adviser for a half hour. All middle school students will be assigned an adviser.

The staff will be changing the groups periodically so that the students “really get to know one another. It’s the middle- school version of Responsive Classroom,” said McGrath, referring to another research-based strategy that emphasizes social, emotional, and academic growth in elementary schools.

“They discuss a number of social issues, including bullying and relationships. They get to know one another and the group.”

Haas emphasized that the program, which has been used in Ayer for the past two years, helps teachers to better get to know their students, which in turn reduces the need for disciplinary measures and helps keep students in the classroom. He said that currently over half of the teachers have been trained in the program, but that the goal is to have all teachers trained within three years.

Anti-bullying protocol

On May 3, Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick signed new anti-bullying legislation that mandates, among other things, that all schools must file a bullying prevention and intervention plan with the state by Dec. 31.

Principal Haas said that the middle school has policies in place, but will be working on making them better through more transparency and better communication.

A decision has not yet been made as to whether the newly merged middle school will be adopting Stop Bullying Now!, the anti-bullying program implemented districtwide in Ayer in 2006, but Vice Principal McGrath said that the program there has been very helpful to students.

“Ultimately, we want kids to feel good about coming to school, because if they do, they’ll come to school and they’ll learn better,” said Haas.

Important dates

Thursday, Sept. 16: Curriculum Night for parents of all middle-school students, 7-9 p.m. Parents will follow a modified student schedule to meet the teachers, get a glimpse of their children’s curriculum, and get a feel for what their student’s day is like.

Sept. 27-29: Sixth-grade Nature’s Classroom trip to Wakefield, R.I.

Thursday, Sept. 30: An evening program for parents on cyber-bullying — bullying through the use of electronic communication.