When Atlanta Public Schools began tinkering with attendance zone boundaries in Buckhead, a group of parents at Sutton Middle School rallied around the idea that sixth grade students in the North Atlanta cluster should be separate.

They put yellow signs on roadsides and urged parents to support the “6th Grade Academy” and directed parents to the website keepsuttontogether.com. The academy would feed into a school for seventh and eighth graders at the current North Atlanta High School campus.

Atlanta Public Schools officials listened. On March 4, Superintendent Erroll Davis released his preliminary recommendations on school rezoning. In addition to leaving Buckhead’s school boundaries intact, Davis left open the possibility that Sutton can become a sixth grade academy.

“As Sutton nears capacity at its new home (the current North Atlanta campus), the old Sutton site may be repurposed as a sixth grade academy for the cluster,” Davis wrote.

He also recommended a similar academy in the Grady High School cluster.

Sutton Parent Teacher Association co-President Leigh Darby said students need an extra year between elementary and middle school to “mature.”

“I’m a big proponent of it, and it keeps all of our Sutton Middle School community together,” she said.

APS spokesman Keith Bromery said Davis sees advantages in the sixth grade academy concept.

“It is a way to keep large cohorts together without having to create a new middle school and all the attendant problems that would occur with defining new zones,” Bromery said. “It also provides a transition for elementary students entering middle school.”

The academic record of the concept in the Atlanta metro area has been mixed.

Sutton sixth grade academy proponents point to the success of the Marietta City Schools, which has had its own school for sixth graders for 17 years and a record of achievement. It’s a different story at Lindley Sixth Grade Academy in Cobb County Schools, where students struggle with certain subjects, such as social studies.

According to the 2010-2011 school report card, published by the state, 80 percent or more of Marietta Sixth Grade Academy students met or exceeded goals for all five subjects measured on the state Criterion-Referenced Competency Tests, or CRCTs.

At Lindley, 55 percent of students did not meet the goals for social studies, 41 percent did not meet goals for math and 39 percent didn’t meet goals for science.

Cobb County Board of Education member Tim Stultz said Lindley, which is in his district, hasn’t lived up to expectations. “It’s still a low performing school,” Stultz said. “I don’t think it was working the way they were hoping it would.”

Dr. Debra McCracken, assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction for Marietta City Schools, said the model should be adopted elsewhere. She said the system’s sixth grade academy began unofficially 17 years ago when the school system housed the grade in a separate building. Marietta Schools officially became an academy in 2002. McCracken said the program gives students an opportunity to adjust to the rigors of changing classes during the day.

“Parents have embraced it,” McCracken said. “They feel like (their children are) in a good, protected environment.”

It will be a while before Buckhead parents see whether APS establishes an academy at Sutton. In his recommendations, Davis said E. Rivers Elementary would be completely rebuilt in 2013 and the current Sutton site would need to house E. Rivers’ students for 18 months during that time.

Davis’ recommendation closely followed the recommendation of consultants hired by APS to propose new school zones.

Darby cheered Davis’ plan.

“I am thrilled with his recommendations and think it is the fiscally responsible thing to do,” she said.

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