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Program helps sixth-graders with New Beginnings

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By Hannah Hemperly

From breaking in a new locker to making new friends, the first day of middle school can be intimidating. 

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Falcon Bluffs Middle School is hoping to counter some of that anxiety with the New Beginnings program for Jeffco students entering sixth grade.

The program is headed by drama teacher Anthony Bruno and physical education teacher Allyn Atadero. Its aim is to introduce students to middle school life before the year begins, including the dreaded challenge of opening the new locker, their biggest fear, according to Atadero. 

“If you’re worried that your locker’s not going to open, you’re not going to get to class,” Bruno said. 

Along with mastering the locker, students are given a practice schedule to get them adjusted to the class format, introduced to the principal and teachers, and even participate in a website scavenger hunt.

“We get them totally acclimated to the school, so when they get here the first day, they feel like they own the place,” Atadero said. 

The five-day program had two sessions that gathered 85 percent of the incoming sixth-grade class from surrounding elementary schools — Mortensen, Coronado, Shaffer — along with out-of-state schools. 

New Beginnings is also the only chance for students to forget the dress code and wear hats to school. 

“It’s like having the amusement park to yourself for a week,” Atadero said. 

The program is comparable to orientation at a university, targeting middle-school issues like bullying and personal drama. 

“Everyone has a perception of what they’ve been told, what they’ve heard, what they’ve read,” Bruno said. “But the reality is something else.” 

According to Bruno, with middle school comes responsibility, and students have that expectation as well. Even lockers give students that first sense of responsibility and ownership.

“This is my square, and I can shut it,” he said.

Atadero and Bruno say it's important for the incoming sixth-graders to feel like they have a sense of belonging and purpose, and New Beginnings is where that starts.

“Try to sit by someone you don’t know …,” Bruno encourages kids on the first day of the program.

That way, by the time school starts, everyone has a friend.

“When a kid matters, it's everything,” Bruno said. “A kid has to have an advocate at school.”

Brian Keely, Falcon Bluffs' digital media teacher, is part of the summer staff. Keely hopes that New Beginnings dispels some of the myths of middle school, such as drama among the students.

“I’m a girl that doesn’t like drama,” one student told him.

Caitlin Zigler, a University of Northern Colorado student doing her student-teaching semester at Falcon Bluffs, said the program will help the students in the long term.

“Starting now will help them not only now but in high school and college,” Zigler said. 

Bruno’s main goal is to get the students while they’re "still pliable." The energy of fifth-graders is dramatically different from that of eighth-graders, and Falcon Bluffs hopes to use that energy. 

“This is when the confidence starts building,” Atadero said.

Atadero and Bruno tell the students that, in all things, rewards are linked to effort. Students in New Beginnings have the same expectations.

“Every kid that takes it says, ‘I’m so glad I was here,’ ” Atadero said.