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Parents, kids get lowdown on Willmar Middle School

Bergen Vollan, left, a fifth-grader in Marjorie Andersen's class at Roosevelt Elementary School in Willmar, reads aloud Thursday from her Weekly Reader News during class as Jasmine Hennessey follows along. Fifth-graders at Roosevelt will attend sixth-grade classes next year at the junior high building, which will become Willmar Middle School. (Tribune photo by Ron Adams)

WILLMAR -- A murmur of approval rippled through the younger members of the crowd in the Willmar Junior High gym.

"Absolutely, yes," all students at the Willmar Middle School next year will go swimming in physical education class, said Principal Mark Miley. Miley spoke at informational meetings for parents of current fifth- and sixth-graders

With that, lots of next year's sixth-graders seemed sold on the idea of moving to the current junior high on Willmar Avenue Southeast.

In the fall, the junior high will add sixth-graders and be called Willmar Middle School, with grades 6-8 in the building. The School Board approved the move last month as part of a larger reorganization of the school district from pre-school through grade 8.

Parents had more practical questions -- about classes, buses, backpacks and lockers.

On Tuesday night, fifth-graders and their parents packed the bleachers and rows of chairs on the gym floor to hear Miley describe what the staff envisions for Willmar Middle School next year. An hour later, he did the same with sixth-graders and their parents.

Miley provided a rough outline of how the middle school would be organized.

Each grade will be clustered in its own area of the school for their core classes, with sixth grade in the northwest wing of the building, seventh grade on the west end and eighth grade in the southwest wing. The team concept now used at the junior high will continue.

Administrators and staff considered different schedules before settling on something similar to the current seven-period day. Homeroom sessions will be added at the beginning and end of each school day.

The schedule will address rising academic standards by emphasizing math and communications in the schedules. Schedules will alternate, with a two-period communications class one day and a two-period math class the next.

Students will also alternate between music and physical education throughout the year.

Spanish classes will be provided to students in all three grades, "something we have not had in some years," Miley said.

Some details haven't yet been worked out. Miley said bus schedules and start and dismissal times will be available later. Decisions are also still to be made on athletics for sixth-graders.

The district hasn't assigned teachers to school buildings or grades yet, he said, but he expects to see some of the current sixth-grade teachers move to the middle school.

"You're going to see an excited group of professionals" at the school, he said.

The school will have about 900 students in the three grades next year. Class sizes will range from 28 to 32, Miley said.

Asked about discipline, Miley said the school's expectations would be made clear to all students. "This is just a wonderful, safe building," with an experienced staff, he said.

After the meeting, parents and students said they liked the answers they'd gotten about the change, at least so far.

Marina Villanueva, 10, said she is looking forward to sixth grade in the middle school. She's looking forward to Spanish, choir, orchestra and swimming.

Marina's mother Mary Lozano of Willmar said her son is in seventh grade, and she was looking forward to having both of them in the same school.

"I'm surprised that they haven't thought about it before," she said. "I think it'll go just fine."

Jill Roschild said it was big step for her son Gunner Raths, who will also be in sixth grade and is looking forward to moving to the new school.

"It's different, but I'll get used to it," she said. She appreciated finding out more about how the different grades will be located and scheduled, she added.

Sherri Vreeman and Wendi Vreeman, both of Willmar, said they liked the answers they heard from Miley. They and others said the plan seemed well thought out so far.

The sisters-in-law each have a son who will be in the sixth grade next year.

"I think we're very open to it ... as long as the kids are safe and in an appropriate environment," Sherri Vreeman said. Her son is excited about the change.

Wendi Vreeman said her son is more hesitant. "We talk about it positively," she said. "I try to talk to my son about it being a promotion."

Several parents praised Miley and the way he works with students. Wendi Vreeman said she has confidence that Miley will do a good job with the transition and said, "He is a big part of what makes it OK."