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Lawmakers ditch electives sampling course for Florida sixth-graders

Published Jul. 25, 2015

Matthew Massari had no idea which elective courses he might like when he entered sixth grade at Martinez Middle School in Lutz.

He sang in his elementary school chorus, so chorus seemed a natural choice. His mom wanted him to take Spanish. Other options seemed a mystery.

"The elective wheel gave me the opportunity to try new and interesting classes, some I might have not thought I would have liked," said Matthew, 12, who begins seventh grade in August.

Future sixth-graders won't have that same chance.

Lawmakers have abolished the wheel, which dates back to when Florida still had junior high schools.

The elimination of the course, in which sixth-graders took shortened versions of several electives, came with the state's transition to new academic standards. With these revised guidelines in place, the Legislature deemed it inappropriate for schools to offer courses that do not "fully integrate all appropriate curricular content."

Exploratory Wheel, the formal name for the sixth-grade sampler, fell into that category.

"The state has changed the accountability piece," explained Jason Joens, principal of Gulf Middle School in New Port Richey. "Instead of having flexibility to offer a six- or nine-week course, the standards are written for a semester or year with a benchmark test."

The Florida Board of Education deleted the wheel from the state course codes, effective this year. Middle schools now can offer only the longer courses.

Joens saw both good and bad in the move.

"The one positive about it is, students have elective choice. Before we just forced everyone into the wheel," he said.

The question remains, though: How do fifth-graders know what they want to study?

"What does a fifth-grader really know about becoming a professional chef?" said Dave Rosenberger, principal at Pinellas Park Middle School.

Pinellas Park offers specialty courses in culinary arts, emergency response and business technology, none of which has a counterpart in its feeder elementary schools.

"That's the downside," Rosenberger said. "A fifth-grader is making decisions he can't really grasp."

The wheel provided exposure to these ideas before a student had to choose.

Matthew, the Martinez Middle rising seventh-grader, learned that middle school chorus was nothing like the elementary version, and that he wasn't keen on Spanish. He landed in orchestra, playing bass.

His classmate, Hailey Mills, discovered the joys of agriculture and culinary before also settling on orchestra as her elective.

"I feel the elective wheel was very helpful," said Hailey, 12. "It was very interesting to get a chance to try all the different electives and see what we could be doing before we would be choosing and couldn't back out."

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To help incoming students make their selections, middle schools send representatives to their feeder schools, or invite incoming students to campus for a visit. At that time, the school officials explain the options as best they can and answer questions.

Then the kids fill out preference sheets and hope for the best.

"We try to make sure each kid gets their No. 1 or No. 2 choice," Joens said.

At Gulf Middle, about 120 sixth-graders signed up for dance. Some don't even know what the class looks like.

Joens was hopeful that they would appreciate the course, which he recently added to Gulf's offerings in an effort to make school more interesting. Other new options include drama and a business course aligned to nearby Gulf High School's gaming academy.

Pinellas Park approached the change differently.

The school moved to an eight-period block schedule, with students taking four classes each day. That way, Rosenberger said, even though students lose the elective wheel's variety, they have more courses to choose and take in a year.

With middle-schoolers increasingly taking more freshman-level courses, such as Algebra and English I, the revised schedule makes sense, he said.

It also makes the wheel's elimination more of a non-event than it might have been a few years ago, he said.

Even so, 12-year-old Matthew isn't totally convinced its demise will help sixth-graders.

"I think they should have kept the wheel, so they can try everything," he said.

Contact Jeffrey S. Solochek at jsolochek@tampabay.com or (813) 909-4614. Follow @JeffSolochek.