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LANSING, Mich. — For most seventh and eighth-grade students, the beginning of the school year is a time to assume a long-awaited leadership role. But for the seventh and eighth-graders in the Lansing School District, the beginning of the 2012-2013 school year marked a drop back to the bottom of the social ladder.

In a money-saving effort, the district closed a few middle schools and invested $5 million during the summer to consolidate the large campuses and facilities of Eastern and Sexton high schools with middle schools. The new system expands the high schools from ninth through 12th grade to seventh through 12th grade.

“The seventh and eighth-graders are joining a restructuring program into the high schools,” said Robert Kolt, a spokesperson for the school district. “It’s not new in Lansing. It’s done successfully all over the nation.”

Although the young students share a campus with the high-schoolers, the two age groups are mostly segregated. They arrive on separate busses, use different drop-off sites and eat at different periods.

Those new to Eastern High School are shielded from the older students, but they share the cafeteria, library and technology labs.

“They’re basically keeping them separated,” said Tina Erspamer, a seventh-grade teacher at Eastern. “We have one hallway (and) put a doorway up at the end. The rest of the high school students are not allowed to use the stairwell that the seventh and eighth-graders use, (and) they’re not allowed to come into our hallway, so there shouldn’t be any interaction.”

The middle-school students have their own administrative staff and counselors, and they are escorted by security to the office to mitigate interaction between the different grade levels. So far, the school has not received any complaints about intimidation by older students.

But Erspamer has found other problems with the set-up. Confining all the young students in a small hallway and coordinating library time with the rest of the grades are two of the main concerns, but the teacher said keeping the seventh- and eighth-graders constantly together is difficult, too.

“The seventh- and eighth-graders aren’t separated,” she said. “They do everything together.”

Along with the spatial issues, the school is working to alleviate transportation and building maintenance problems, but those are the worst of its troubles from the administrative end, said Worsie Gregory, director of high schools.

Gregory said the young students seem to be adjusting well to the new atmosphere, and she has not heard any complaints about the arrangement.

“We’ve been seeing seventh and eighth-graders at the (football) games, and they seem to be really rallying behind (the school),” she said.

Kolt added that early exposure to the high school culture could benefit the younger students.

“They’re going to be there through their high school careers, and we hope it’s a positive action toward decreasing the dropout rate,” he said.

One of the reasons behind the shift was to increase graduation rates.

“At Eastern High School, the enrollment is very strong and really because of the reconfiguration of the seventh and eighth grades,” Kolt said.

With the addition of middle-school students, the Eastern campus population rose from about 1,100 students in 2011 to about 1,700 students in 2012. Gregory said nearly 50 percent of students are new to the school.

The restructuring of Sexton showed similar results. Kolt said Everett High School, the third in the Lansing district, will transfer to the seventh- through 12th-grade model next year.

“We’re really trying to change the image of our district,” Gregory said. “That’s what this whole change is about.”

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