Big changes are coming to St. Paul schools, and few will feel them more than fifth-graders, like those at Chelsea Heights Elementary School.

On a recent Thursday, they went en masse to Murray Junior High to get a glimpse of life on the big, fast-moving campus, and when Principal Tim Williams offered up his greetings, they hung on every word.

"Anyone nervous?" he asked. "A little bit?"

Next fall, a sweeping district reorganization culminates in a full embrace of neighborhood schools as a key to boosting student achievement. The "Strong Schools, Strong Communities" plan will see more children attending elementary schools closer to home and then on to designated middle schools and high schools.

Middle schools, in turn, replace junior highs as the bridge between the elementary and high school years, with sixth grade now a part of the new grades 6-8 configuration. That means no elementary-school "king of the hill" status next year for this year's fifth-graders.

District leaders say having students spend three years in middle school, instead of two years in junior high, should strengthen bonds between schools and parents, and teachers and students. The district cites national research pointing to the needs of young adolescents for trusting relationships and social and economic connections, and of New York's success in using middle schools to close the achievement gap, especially in high-poverty districts.

The middle school is "not just a name change," said Steven Unowsky, assistant superintendent of middle schools, but a change in practice, with teachers working in teams and getting trained to better understand relationships and adolescent development.

Chelsea Heights' fifth-graders will be among about 2,250 across the district who will be trading in the security of life with a primary teacher for a new school day that finds them rotating through a core group of math, science, English and social studies instructors, and a few others teaching electives.

But, a quick glance tells you: These kids are little.

Easing the transition

Unowsky said the district will ease their transition into the middle schools by grouping them in isolation, for the most part, during their sixth-grade year. At Murray, the students will have their own wing on campus, and be among classmates during passing time in the hallways between periods, Williams said.

The recent school tour was part of the acclimation process.

That morning, Williams briefed the fifth-graders in the school's entryway. Then, they went to the cafeteria to pair up with Murray students. There, the Chelsea Heights fifth-graders stopped and hesitated as a group, but the slow start gave way to the rush of second-period classes, and in the end, they took in the morning's action with a level of confidence.

Cole Lundy-Caputo, 10, went to math class with a seventh-grade host, Collin Columbus, 13, who scribbled away while teacher Kellie Saindon blazed through questions about rates and ratios. "It's going to help us a lot if we keep up the pace," she said.

The pace was dizzying, but Cole wasn't intimidated. Asked later if he'd prefer to stay in elementary school next year, he replied: "I think I'd rather come here. They're really good at what they're doing."

But Chittra Xiong, a classmate, said she preferred the K-6 routine, "because we have a homeroom -- and we don't have to run around."

After its overhaul, the St. Paul district will have 35 K-5 buildings, and every one of its fifth- and sixth-graders -- except those at K-8 sites -- will be swept next year into middle schools, Unowsky said.

Officials say the middle-school change is not designed to save money, but to improve academics and foster tighter connections.

"It takes a special person to effectively bond with middle school students," Unowsky said. "As a teacher, you have to show you are there for them as they are pushing you away."

Officials did not elaborate when asked last week about specific educational outcomes. Two years ago, when the Strong Schools, Strong Communities plan was launched, the district said its goal was to have 75 percent of students proficient in math and reading. Right now, 41 percent of students are proficient in math and 57 percent in reading. Last year, the former Highland Park Junior High began operating as a middle school, and student test scores rose 5 percent in math and 10 percent in reading, Unowsky said.

Under the reorganization, Murray is the designated middle school for students at five elementary schools: Chelsea Heights, Como Park, Galtier, Hancock/Hamline and St. Anthony Park. The students would move on later to Como Park Senior High.

A way off the 'pathway'

Students still could attend schools outside their designated "pathways," but if the schools are outside their geographic zones, with a few exceptions, families would have to find their own transportation.

Williams said drawing students from five schools instead of 35 will help him connect with families. To that end, he's begun meeting biweekly with a group of parents, three of whom have students at Murray and four others who have children at the elementary level, to discuss issues ranging from school operations to after-school activities.

Collin, who attended Galtier Elementary, worked with his parents to select Murray from among three options, settling on it in part because of the quality of its teachers.

Cole said it appeared to him that the teachers loved their job and took pride in what they were doing. As for the fast-paced math class, he theorized that students may already have had several days of instruction in rates and ratios.

"Correct," Saindon said later, adding: "Cole sounds like a student I would love to have in class!"

Anthony Lonetree • 651-925-5036