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Kaeleigh Beld, a sixth-grader in Jody Sulser's new class at Lewis and Clark Middle School, loves her new digs.

But most of all, she loves her locker.

"Mine's full of decorations," she exclaimed.

Kaeleigh is one of 204 sixth-graders now attending class at either Lewis and Clark or Will James middle schools.

The move is an effort by School District 2 to address space issues at some of its more crowded elementary schools. The sixth-graders -- mostly from McKinley, Arrowhead and Washington elementary schools -- don't integrate with the seventh- and eighth-graders.

Instead, they have their own corner of the schools where they're relatively autonomous from the other middle school students as a way to preserve some of the elementary school experience. They stay with the same teacher through the day, sitting in the same classroom -- except when they go to P.E. and art.

And after a little more than a month of school, the experiment seems to be working.

"I really think they're adjusting great," Sulser said. "They're getting pretty comfortable."

The students have loved it. They feel like they have more privileges then they did in elementary school and more privacy. And, of course, they have lockers.

"It's awesome," sixth-grader Ja'Juan Yarbrough said.

They still have some worries and concerns. The eighth-graders seem pretty big to Kaeleigh, Ja'Jaun and their friends. They admitted that during those first few weeks of school they worried they'd get trampled down in the hallways.

Now, it's little concerns that linger.

"I'm not used to going up stairs," said Asia Chambers. The sixth-grade classrooms are on the second floor at Lewis and Clark.

Classrooms in the district's lower elementary grades have been filling rapidly over the last few years.  Over the last two years, SD2 has seen its enrollment grow by roughly 600 students and much of that growth happened in the elementary schools.

For example, Arrowhead has five second-grade classes and four third- and fourth-grade classes. Typically, an elementary school will have between two and three classes per grade.

Also the increase in students has pushed up the district's student-to-teacher ratio beyond what state accreditation standards allow. This year, the district has roughly 110 classrooms with a ratio above the state standard.

The state has required the district to address some of the overcrowding or risk losing its accreditation.

Moving some of the sixth graders out to the two middle schools freed up space at a few elementary schools, giving the district more room there to set up new teachers and reduce some of the overcrowded classrooms.

But moving classes can only be a temporary fix. Because SD2 currently has its biggest concentration of students in second, third and fourth grades, the district will need more space in the middle schools once those same kids become seventh- and eighth-graders. 

The space that exists now to house sixth grade classes there will be swallowed up.

With a master facilities plan currently in the works, district leaders are hopeful they can find a solution to current space constraints over the next few years.

Meanwhile, back in Sulser's sixth-grade classroom at Lewis and Clark, the students huddle together in groups working on revising the essays they've recently written for a class assignment.

Sulser likes what she sees.

"We're babysteppin' it," she said.

Her students will have an easier time transitioning to a full middle school routine next year and they'll be better prepared for the stress and rigors that come with it, she said.

"They'll notice it next year," she said. "It kind of is the best of both worlds."

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Business Reporter

Business Reporter for the Billings Gazette.