Stuck in the middle with you

My 8th grade official picture.

My 8th grade official picture. I remember how angry Dad was that my glasses are so crooked in the photo.

Today, I’m continuing to answer questions raised by the author of the Twist in the Taile blog, to wit: “I want to learn how the American school system works. It is just SO DARN CONFUSING. Even after reading all these books about kids in high school (?) I still do not understand which age corresponds with which year. (And honors classes?? What are they?)

Yesterday I explained roughly what age kids are expected to be at different grade levels, along with why it can vary a lot, and why just knowing what grade a kid is in tells you nothing about what he or she has studied by this time. Today, let’s talk about how American schools group those grades, and answer the blogger’s question about what we mean by “high school.”

Usually American schools are organized into three levels: Elementary, Middle, and High School.

Elementary School (also known as Grammar School or Grade School) usually consists of Kindergarten, First, Second, Third, Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth grades. Except when Sixth is part of the next level. And also except that sometimes districts will have a Primary School consisting of Kindergarten, First, and Second grade. Then an Elementary School consisting of Third, Fourth, and Fifth grade… and sometimes Sixth.

Middle School (also known as Junior High School, though there’s a complication) usually consists of Sixth, Seventh, and Eighth grades. If, however, the school is called a Junior High School rather than a Middle School, then it probably consists of Seventh, Eighth, and Ninth grades. Obviously, in a specific district, if the middle level is 6th-8th, then the Elementary School was K-5th. Whereas if the middle level is 7th-9th, then the Elementary School will be K-6th. Usually. I’ll get to that.

High School (sometimes called Senior High School, not to be confused with a High School student who is in the Twelfth grade, see below) is usually Ninth, Tenth, Eleventh, and Twelfth grades, unless Ninth is in the Junior High, in which case High School is Tenth, Eleventh, and Twelfth grades. If the high school includes Ninth grade, then students in that grade are called Freshmen. If Ninth grade isn’t in the high school, then the students in Ninth grade are called ninth-graders. Regardless of where Ninth grade is, students in Tenth grade are called Sophomores, students in Eleventh grade are called Juniors, and students in Twelfth grade are called Seniors.

For much of U.S. history, the term “primary education” referred to schooling up to Eighth grade, and then “secondary education” was Ninth through Twelfth. Until about the time of The first World War, most children only had access to 1st-8th, and those were often provided in one-room schoolhouses. The upper grades were only available in large towns and cities. Most families couldn’t afford to send their kids that far away.

State laws at the time often only required children to attend school until the age of 12. A few of my great-uncles and at least one of my great-grandfathers only attended school through the Sixth grade, because they were needed as full-time workers on the family farm as soon as the law would allow.

During the 20th Century the difference between primary and secondary education shifted. The main reason to keep track of the distinction now is that most states require teachers of primary grades to be certified for that age group, while teachers of secondary grades have a separate certification. Some states consider a primary certification adequate for Kindergarten through Sixth grade, requiring secondary certification for grades Seventh through Twelfth. Some states put the cut-off at Fifth grade, requiring the secondary certification for Sixth and up.

One would expect that these differences would be regional, but sometimes districts within the same state—and even the same county (parish) within the state—will use different definitions. For example, Rangely, Colorado, the town where I attended Eighth grade (the age I was in the picture at the top of this post) had Kindergarten through Fifth grade in the Elementary School, Sixth through Eighth in the Middle School, and Ninth through Twelfth in the High School.

A mere 18 miles to the north of Rangely the even smaller town of Dinosaur had an Elementary School consisting of Kindergarten through Sixth grade. And then the town had no other school. Older children from Dinosaur were bussed to our Middle School and High School for Seventh through Twelfth grades. So two-thirds of the Middle School and the entirety of the High School in Rangely was administered through a combination of the Dinosaur and Rangely school districts.

After I completed Ninth grade in Rangely, my parents’ divorce having been finalized, Mom, my oldest sister, and I moved out to Washington state, where I was enrolled in a High School that consisted of Tenth through Twelfth grades. And within the sub-culture of American high schools, the youngest grade in the school are at the bottom of the social heap. So I got to be suffer at least mild hazing in two different schools for two subsequent grades.

Not only do these things change from district to district, but frequently within a district over time. For instance, I attended Seventh through Ninth grades in Rangely. Rangely happened to be the town where I had been born, though I hadn’t lived there since I was about 3 years old (I had visited a lot, since both sets of grandparents and a couple of great-grandparents lived there). My dad grew up in Rangely. My mom’s family didn’t move there until my Mom was in middle school. Except Rangely didn’t have a middle school at the time. It had an Elementary School that covered Kindergarten through Sixth grade, then the High School and Junior High School shared a building.

The population in Rangely was growing so fast in the late 1950s and the 1960s, that the two school buildings became overcrowded. They built a separate middle school, moving the Sixth through Eighth grades to the new building, and freeing up some space in the two older buildings. The change happened after my dad graduated and before we moved back in the early 1970s. And since I was born only three months after Dad graduated from high school, there were still plenty of people around who remembered how the school had been before. So some of the older teachers called the small gymnasium (and it’s locker rooms and shower rooms) at the High School building the “junior gym” because it previously had been for use by the junior high school grades that used the share the building. Meanwhile, younger teachers who weren’t around before the Middle School was built called the same gymnasium the “small gym.”

So when reading an American novel which states that the characters are high school students, it could mean that the kids are as young 14 or as old as 18, depending.

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About fontfolly

I've loved reading for as long as I can remember. I write fantasy, science fiction, mystery, and nonfiction. For more than 20 years I edited and published an anthropomorphic sci-fi/space opera literary fanzine. I attend and work on the staff for several anthropormorphics, anime, and science fiction conventions. I live near Seattle with my wonderful husband, still completely amazed that he puts up with me at all.

2 responses to “Stuck in the middle with you”

  1. Kristin says :

    You left out the combination of K-6 for Elementary, 7-8th for Junior High, and 9-12th High School. Which is how the school system I was in organized & is how my son’s school 30 years later is organized. (Just to make it more exciting)

    • fontfolly says :

      I thought I included that middle school/junior high could be only 7-8th… but it looks like during the gazillion edits that got lost in the muddle. I re-wrote that middle school paragraph a lot. 😛

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