Putting Fifth First

Two Jesuit Middle Schools Add Fifth Grade for Greater Impact

By Mike Gabriele

“I was excited!”

This simple but enthusiastic response came from Eric Harris, a student in the pioneer fifth grade at St. Ignatius Loyola Academy in Baltimore, when asked how he felt about leaving his old school to come to the Academy. Eric made a substantial leap to a new school—a completely new environment that has become, in so many ways, home. This excitement, this impartiality with which Eric approached leaving his normal routine to accept the unfamiliar, is not uncommon in his other classmates who make up the Academy’s very first fifth-grade class.

The transition from a public city elementary school to a private Jesuit middle school, especially for students from lower-income families, can be quite daunting, if not downright demanding. Academically, new sixth graders entering St. Ignatius Loyola Academy were often one to two years behind where they should have been to adequately begin preparing for high school admission. And beyond scholastic aptitude, many incoming sixth graders find acclimating into the Academy’s environment more difficult than they might have a year earlier.

“You’d be surprised the difference a year makes,” said John Ciccone, president of St. Ignatius Loyola Academy. “Fifth graders are still young children. They’re more inquisitive, more open to different environments and new experiences.” The Academy moved from its original location at St. Ignatius Church in Baltimore to a bigger building south of the Inner Harbor in 2013 with the specific hopes and plans of adding a fifth grade to the curriculum. That hope became a reality last fall. “We have 15 students in our inaugural fifth-grade class,” said Ciccone. “Next year we plan to double that. We had 55 families hoping to fill these first 15 desks, so the need is obviously there.”

The pioneer fifth grade students at St. Ignatius Loyola Academy in Baltimore.

While St. Ignatius Loyola Academy is a school for boys, Brooklyn Jesuit Prep in New York City is a co-ed Jesuit middle school. When it first opened in 2003, BJP included a fifth grade, but due to financial difficulties faced by the Nativity Schools of New York in 2013, they reluctantly chose to become strictly sixth through eighth in order to remain open. In the fall of this year, however, Brooklyn Jesuit Prep will add back their fifth-grade curriculum.

“Not having our fifth grade took a year off our ability to reach these kids and work with them,” said Patricia Gauvey, president at Brooklyn Jesuit Prep. “Seventh-grade report cards are so very important for high school admissions; we need that extra year to better prepare our students.” BJP also sees the same transition issues between fifth and sixth grade that St. Ignatius Loyola Academy experiences. “Fifth graders are generally more malleable than sixth graders,” Gauvey said. “They adapt better to the high expectations we set. New sixth graders often see themselves already as cliques rather than as a unified class.”

Both Brooklyn Jesuit Prep and St. Ignatius Loyola Academy utilize their older students to help welcome and acclimate incoming fifth graders to the new environment. “Our summer camp will mix the fifth graders with other students, who will continue to meet with them once a week throughout the year,” explained Gauvey.

Students at Brooklyn Jesuit Prep are eager to welcome fifth graders to the school this fall.

“We have advisory periods instead of homerooms so that our fifth graders can interact with upper classmates,” added Ciccone. “This is one reason we launched our fifth grade with only 15 students. We want to evolve and adjust as we go before growing to full capacity.”

A seventh-grade student at Brooklyn Jesuit Prep understands the important role of older classmates. “I know that next year we will need to step up even more as leaders because we will have more students to set an example for,” said the student.

As for the new fifth graders already enrolled at St. Ignatius Loyola Academy, the experience has been an exciting challenge. “We work much harder here, and the teachers don’t treat us like kids,” said Eric Harris. “I like that.”

Eric Harris (left) and Sawyer Hartlove were both excited to be in the very first fifth-grade class at St. Ignatius Loyola Academy.
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