The Times photo by Betsy Reason
Noblesville East Middle School sixth-grader Ray Kenley (center) sings with his sixth-grade choir during a winter choir concert at Noblesville High School. AT NEMS, the number of students enrolled in performing arts has surpassed the number of students who participate in sports.
The Times photo by Betsy Reason Noblesville East Middle School sixth-grader Ray Kenley (center) sings with his sixth-grade choir during a winter choir concert at Noblesville High School. AT NEMS, the number of students enrolled in performing arts has surpassed the number of students who participate in sports.
We are more than halfway through the sixth-grade school year at Noblesville East Middle School. And while I must admit that I was a little teary-eyed to have my daughter move to middle school, we quickly grew to love the school, her teachers and principal Ryan Rich.
Big changes came in middle school in that students received school lockers, change classes and have more independence. Sixth-graders also got to choose performing arts electives that include band, choir and orchestra.
NEMS opened five years ago with just less than 1,000 students, and since has grown to an enrollment of 1,139 students. Next school year, NEMS will enroll more than 1,200 students.
“The challenge when you have that many kids in a middle school is trying to find ways for them to feel connected to school and trying to find a place for them to feel like they belong,” said Rich, who sat down with me to talk about the school.
Before the district split into two middle schools, Noblesville East and West, he said, a committee spent 18 months revisioning what a high-functioning middle-school program should look like.
“We’ve really tried to focus on providing a place that meets the needs of the kids where they are in the unique time between elementary and high school,” Rich said.
The 420 NEMS sixth-graders, for example, are divided up on four teams, West Point, Stanford, DePauw and Wisconsin, led by teachers who coordinate tests and homework. Each team has its own area within the sixth-grade wing, where all of the core classrooms and hall lockers are located. “They’re really with their team of 110. So it makes this large place seem a lot smaller, and they all share that common group of teachers,” he said. Counselors and administrators loop with the sixth-graders to get to know their students and families. Then, students will mix it up again, with new teams formed in seventh grade and in eighth grade.
“It makes a large school feel much smaller for kids that are in that in between time, between elementary and high school, where they’re trying to figure out how they belong, and they’re trying to form relationships,” said Rich, who has welcomed visitors from several high-performing school districts in the area to observe the school’s teaming, which runs four schedules within the school, one for each grade level and a fourth schedule for diversified and performing arts.
NEMS has a professional learning community (PLC), or educators who meet and share expertise and work together to improve teaching skills and academic performance of students.
SInce the split to two middle schools, the number of NEMS students enrolled in performing arts has surpassed the number of students who participate in sports.
“When you have success, success breeds success. As our teachers have become more successful, and the kids have gone to competitions and they’re winning, and they’re receiving these accolades, and they’re having a lot of fun with it, I think that word has spread,” Rich said. “And I think more and more people have become interested in it as a result of that.”
At NEMS, 741 students are enrolled in a performing art. “That’s 65 percent of our school,” he said. “It’s a major program for us. Part of it is due to increase in enrollment.” At both middle schools, there are more students participating in performing arts.
And part of it is because “kids are just staying in it,” Rich said. “...We’ve seen more kids stay with it longer, I think because of the success they’ve had with the program. We have really great teachers that just do a good job in the classroom.”
At the beginning of the school year, choir director Jordan Rattenbury told parents that the number of sixth-grade students who chose choir increased from 90 students to this year’s class of 140 students.
Three performing arts teachers who all started their teaching careers in Noblesville at about the same time are now seasoned veterans, including Rattenbury, band director Betheny Hanlin and orchestra director Dan Hedlund. “Kids like being in their classes.” Beginning two years ago, a new band director, Alex Keim, who teaches sixth-grade band, percussion and beginning guitar, splits his time between NEMS and Noblesville High School, and he has become part of that likeable mix of teachers.
NEMS’s fall musical, “Guys & Dolls Jr.” in November, was also a “real solid success,” he said, selling out all three shows at the Ivy Tech Community College auditorium.
Also part of the growth has been due to the district’s changes of “the way we do performing arts enrichments,” Rich said.
Middle school students can choose regular choir and also be in show choir or jazz band or honors strings ensemble. Show choir used to be a class in the regular school day. Now it’s bumped to end of the day, with two jazz bands and honors strings ensemble, all offered during the school day’s last period, called Student Learning Time (SLT).
“It doubled the opportunity for music experience for those kids who try out for the jazz bands, the strings ensemble and the show choir,” he said.
The school has added various opportunities as it’s grown, including a robotics team that participates in competitions and a We the People civics club that learns about current events. Best Buddies, added two years ago, matches students with disabilities with their peers. The club’s sponsor, Angie Durbin, earned Indiana Best Buddies’ 2016 Champion of the Year.
NEMS has a Makerspace in the school media center. “We’ve got a lot of kids engaged in that, where the kids come in and they can make and do all sorts of different things,” Rich said.
The school also has a Tech Team that moved to a refurbished computer lab space, connected to the media center.
He’s had a lot of visitors to see NEMS’s Makerspace, and Project Lead the Way program, which offers 3D modeling in sixth grade, robotics class in seventh grade, and medical detectives in eighth grade. “We picked those three because we felt they would best support the programs they have at the high school,” he said.
Last fall, every NEMS student received a NEMS PTO-funded “East Unleashed” T-shirt in celebration of the school’s accomplishments and to promote school unit and spirit.
“We want kids to feel a sense of belonging,” Rich said.
While academics are important, Rich said students need the social and emotional support in middle school. That’s why all of these activities play such a big role.
A solid curriculum and good teachers may be a reason that there are so many students earning all A’s. NEMS students who earned all A’s the first quarter were recognized with an All-A Celebration breakfast. The second quarter’s All-A Celebration breakfast is on Tuesday, for sixth-graders, and on Wednesday, for seventh- and eighth-graders. Also, once a quarter, teachers nominate students for “Miller STARS” for “students that are achieving and reaching success,” a surprise award, often not based on academics. The award is more based on overcoming, perseverance, hard work and good attitude. “A lot of kids get recognized who have never been recognized before,” Rich said.
The principal said he’s “very proud” of his school. Rich said, “I do believe we do things very, very well here because we focus on the needs of the kids.”
-Contact Betsy Reason at betsy@thetimes24-7.com.