Larry Gilfillan, a new sixth-grader at Floyd Dryden Middle School, was nervous as he waited for the doors to open at 8:15 on the first day of school.
"This is the big school," he said. "I only know a couple people here."
"We're very nervous now," said sixth-grader Gabriela Chapa as she flowed with the crowd of backpacks and students toward the commons, where they would get their class schedules.
Gilfillan and Chapa were among about 5,500 public school students who returned to school today in Juneau.
The first day is well-known as a rite of passage for kindergartners and high school freshmen. But it's also a big step for sixth-graders, educators say, as those students go from being top dogs at the elementary schools to underdogs in middle school.
"It's kind of a big school, and I was afraid of bigger kids. You go from being the oldest kids to being the youngest," said Keri Williamson, a seventh-grader this year, thinking back on entering sixth grade.
But the transition was a lot better than she thought it would be "because the teachers were really nice and they gave us hardly any homework to start with. Then they gave us more and more, slowly."
"If kids have a really good sixth-grade year, they continue to go on to be successful," said Molly Manning, who teaches English as a second language at Dryden. "I think it's a grade where if kids have a rough time they start to get a negative feel about middle school, which continues on to higher grades."
Dryden eases the transition for sixth-graders by inviting fifth-graders to tour the middle school at the end of the school year and hear about its programs, said Principal Tom Milliron. It also holds a night for the parents of fifth-graders.
The sixth-grade teachers at Dryden also met last spring with the fifth-grade teachers from its feeder schools to talk about the incoming children, the curriculum, and the expectations of sixth-grade teachers.
Debbie Leamer, mother of a sixth-grader, went to Dryden when it was a junior high serving grades seven, eight and nine. "I remember the first day. I just remember the butterflies in my stomach."
Leamer said the spring tours for incoming sixth-graders are very beneficial. And she thinks that giving sixth-graders their own wing in the school eases the transition to middle school.
"I'm not nervous at all about her going to school here. I hear lots of positive things about Dryden," Leamer said.
By 8:30 this morning most of the sixth-graders had found their teachers, who stood under signs bearing their names like candidates at a political convention. Then the students trailed down the hall to their new classrooms.
Students sat quietly as Sandra Walter took roll. Apples and oranges filled a bowl. Books were lined up in the bookcases, balls filled a big blue plastic bucket, the world map was up, and the cursive alphabet marched across the top of the whiteboard. The TV and computers were dark.
"Do you have a brother that swims?" Walter asked a girl. "I had him in sixth grade. I can tell. Some of these eyes are looking awfully familiar."
Walter has taught sixth-graders in Juneau since about 1983. She said it takes them several weeks to relax.
"They're going from elementary school to middle school. They're going from one teacher to five or six teachers a day, even in sixth grade," Walter said.
Students have to learn the teachers' differing rules and expectations. Students have a more complicated schedule than they're used to because some classes are on a trimester basis and others on a semester basis.
"They come in as young children and they leave as seventh-graders. They definitely start adolescence, if they haven't already done so. Very fun, uplifting kids," Walter said.
By 9 in Deborah Eriksen's room, the students had pledged allegiance to the flag and filled out cards with family information. Then they walked around the room, sometimes hunching together over desks, and asked each other questions from a "People Search" form, such as who owns an unusual pet, or who read a good book recently.
"I'm not really nervous anymore," a smiling Gabriela Chapa said.
Eric Fry can be reached at efry@juneauempire.