Medford seventh-graders will start school a day earlier in the fall than their eighth-grade counterparts, a new strategy intended to connect students to their school communities at one of the most difficult transitions in their education, Medford school officials said.

Medford seventh-graders will start school a day earlier in the fall than their eighth-grade counterparts, a new strategy intended to connect students to their school communities at one of the most difficult transitions in their education, Medford school officials said.

Seventh-graders at Medford's Hedrick and McLoughlin middle schools will begin school Sept. 2, giving them time to meet teachers, find out where to go, learn procedures and get to know one another before the eighth-graders show up on Sept. 3.

"Any time kids transition they tend to plateau or sometimes, because of some of the differences, it's a little bit harder for them in many ways," said McLoughlin Principal Amy Tiger. "Students at risk of dropping out have a harder time with transitions. What we want to do is make it an easier start and connect very quickly with those incoming seventh-graders."

Medford's high schools have held an early start date for their freshmen for two years for the same purpose.

Dubbed the Transitional Start Pilot at the middle schools, the program has no cost, as teachers are contracted to work Sept. 2.

The pilot is one of multiple strategies Medford educators have employed to help keep students engaged in school, officials said.

Like the high schools, the middle schools have organized small learning communities at their campuses, which allows a smaller group of students to share the same core-subject teachers. Having the same teachers and sharing classes with the same group of students fosters a deeper sense of community and knowledge of one another, officials said.

Next year, McLoughlin and Hedrick, with an expected 920 pupils each, will be divided into six to seven small learning communities of 130 to 150 each.

About half of those are seventh-graders.

"It's a transition from smaller elementary schools to a fairly large middle school, so most students are coming into a school that is at least twice as large," said Hedrick Principal Paul Cataldo. "There is much more movement during the day, going from class to class, going to lunch and going to (physical education class). How do you navigate that for the first time?"

Reach reporter Paris Achen at 541-776-4459 or pachen@mailtribune.com.