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The basics plus extras enhance student life at Islander Middle School

Middle school is a tough time of life. Tweens are experiencing growing pains both physically and emotionally, stuck in that in-between place of childhood and the launch into high school and beyond.

Co-principals at Islander Middle School, Mary Jo Budzius and Aaron Miller presented a snapshot of where Islander is now, and where they hope to improve, at the Feb. 10 regular meeting of the Mercer Island School Board.

“It’s hard — you have to have the right people to flex with the changes these kids go through — they’re amazing, but they need boundaries,” Budzius said.

The ideology at Islander includes offering comprehensive electives based on student choice. Islander, which includes students in grades 6-8, is indeed a middle school as opposed to a junior high, which is typically grades 7-9. Budzius said Islander tends to be more junior high-esque because of the way classes are scheduled, prioritizing so that kids get the electives they want.

“We really tend to have a huge focus on academics,” Budzius said. “It feels like we’re high school prep, which sort of speaks to our community. We do give choice and that is something I honor and respect about Islander.”

Miller brought up the fact that the school facility drives the choice of some of the electives. It’s an old building, although remodeled, but it presents challenges.

“Really, we get along fine, but it’s a sprawling campus that doesn’t allow much flexibility,” Budzius said.

As far as social and emotional support, Islander offers academic counseling along with help from counselors with Mercer Island Youth and Family Services. Among several other services are natural helpers, or students identified by their classmates as being people other students’ feel they can trust and turn to for help with their problems, student support groups, mentor programs and an anti-bullying program.

Both principals felt that IMS was lagging a bit in global citizenship programs, in which students are given the opportunity to explore local and global issues through content.

In core curriculum, IMS offers courses for additional depth, as well as remediation and individual learning challenges. Extra-curricular activities include a variety of after school clubs, homework support and enrichment days as well as inter-scholastic sports. Intramural sports had to go due to budget cutting. Budzius said they had to remove several stipend positions which included intramural coaches.

One of the more exciting changes coming is the addition of Chinese to the language curriculum. Currently IMS offers Spanish, which is taught in all grades. Sixth grade Spanish will be dropped and Spanish will now be taught in three trimesters in the seventh grade, and two trimesters in eighth grade. This will equal one year of high school Spanish. Chinese will be offered in the same block.

The curriculum is being developed now by Zhousu He, the Mandarin Chinese teacher at Mercer Island High School, along with Jennifer Wright, executive director of learning and technology services.

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