By Dc Tom Cuskey

Sixth grade is a challenge. Yes, the grade level itself, but especially the pending transition and the angst it can trigger. In the Diocese of Syracuse Catholic schools, sixth grade marks the end of elementary school and the move to middle school. It can be a lot of pressure for a young person to handle.

Enter Heidi Ziervogel, elementary school counselor in the Diocese of Syracuse schools office. She approached Jennifer Brown, the office’s Cabrini Team Health program coordinator, with an idea to work with sixth grade classes on a transition program to help the students get ready for the next step.

Welcome to Moving Up.

“This is the first time that these children have switched buildings,” Ziervogel explained, adding that it’s more than just the change in surroundings. “They’re going to meet new students, which for the most part, they haven’t met very many, maybe one or two new students throughout the time that they’re in Catholic elementary school.”

She added that the Catholic school is “their own little family. It is a very close, close kind of community.” Because some schools offer pre-K programs, many students have been in attendance for a very long time. “A lot of them had been in those schools since they were three years old. So, they quite literally don’t know any other school aside from the school that they’ve been at for nine years. Crazy!”

That can be particularly true for schools in smaller urban settings, like Trinity Catholic in Oswego.

“A lot of the kids in Trinity, naturally, are farther away from accessing the secondary Catholic schools.” Trinity serves students and families from all around Oswego County. Because of the distance to secondary Catholic schools in the Syracuse area, many students will have to make the move to the public school district they live in, out of nine districts in the county. That breaks up the “little family” environment and can be very stressful for those experiencing a different school for the first time.

The focus for Ziervogel and Brown, then, became one of preparation.

“We are doing activities that are fun, but also for the challenges they are going to face,” Ziervogel said. Many readers might flash back to troubling memories of some of them. For example, trying to crack the school locker combination routine for the first time?

“We did a locker combination race,” she shared. “We taught the kids how to use locker combinations. It was fun and the kids all enjoyed it. Honestly, if we could have given them one thing I would have given each student a locker or a lock to take home so they could practice through the summer. It’s really scary for kids to think about that.”

The moving up exercises aren’t all fun and games. Students took time to write notes of thanks to their past teachers, and they practiced with a mock class schedule that required the students to pack up and move from one assigned classroom to another during the day, something else they haven’t had to contend with.

Brown shared students’ comments such as “We only get four minutes in between each class. And what if I have to go to my locker to get my textbook, and my locker is on the other side of the school?” She and Ziervogel offered strategies to the students to allay their concerns.

“We also had them write parting thoughts to each other so they can have those things to keep with them,” Ziervogel added. “To remember the fun moments they’ve had with their friends and others.”

The pair also stressed that the foundational prayer life students have each developed in Catholic school can help sustain and comfort them in their new routines.

“They’re speaking them (prayers) internally, or maybe they are praying out loud,” Ziervogel observed. “Either one, it doesn’t make a difference. They’re sharing with God, sharing with Jesus. And it’s bringing that healing that they need.”

Ziervogel works with kids in Trinity Catholic as well as Holy Family in Norwich and Holy Cross in DeWitt. This was the first year the program was in place and the team is already getting ready for next school year, learning from this initial experience, said Ziervogel.

“It’s part of being a school counselor, just wanting to prepare them for whatever changes are coming up.”

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