Eleven-year-old Cameron Spann can't wait 'til school starts on Aug. 23.
As a sixth-grader at Woodland Park Middle School, he won't have to walk in lines in the hallways anymore, like he did in elementary school.
"And we can talk while we're in the hall," he said last week.
Cameron was one of 127 sixth graders in an incoming class of about 200 who spent half a day for a whole week of their summer break learning the ropes at their new school.
"I think the lunch is better," Cameron confided, "and we get lockers to put our stuff in. It's just getting funner and funner."
Like a driver's license, a school locker marks a milestone for kids. It means independence and a newfound freedom, said Kate Kettler, a counselor at the school.
"Getting a locker is probably the most exciting thing about middle school because it's ownership of something that their parents aren't giving them," she said. "It's a first step in growing up."
Middle school is a big transition for pubescent children, educators say. For the first time, the pre-teens have to change classes throughout the day, navigate a much larger school building and socialize with unfamiliar peers.
"Kids are coming from three elementary schools to one middle school in our district, and many of them will be together for the next seven years," Kettler said. "It's an important time for them to establish relationships."
That's why many school districts not only provide freshmen orientation at the high school level for ninth graders but also orientation for sixth graders entering middle school.
Woodland Park School District RE-2 created its own program, Jump Start, more than a decade ago.
In the weeks before school starts for the new year, sixth graders tour the building, get their schedules and ID badges, practice opening their lockers and decorate them, find their classrooms, meet teachers and other students, and learn the lay of the land.
"We make it fun," Kettler said. "It's at school, but it's not school. It's kind of like summer camp."
Sam Thorpe, 11, said he liked hearing what other students were scared about, like school dances and getting to classes on time.
Good to know, Sam said.
Staff members also enjoy the program, Kettler said.
"It's kind of a bummer for us for summer to end, but the kids have this spirit of excitement that's contagious," she said.
Before experimenting with the tricky left-right-left combination to see if they could get their lockers open, incoming sixth graders learned about locker protocol.
"What should not go in lockers?" asked school counselor Joel Herman.
Pets, weapons, drugs, alcohol, people, a two-week-old sandwich, money and other valuables were among the correct answers.
Students found out that technically lockers belong to the school and can be searched at any time, without permission or warning. Don't be surprised to see drug-sniffing dogs casing lockers from time to time, Herman told the sixth graders.
"Having a locker is a privilege," he said. "We expect you to take care of it. We had two students that lost their locker privilege last year, and they had to put their stuff in a box in my room."
Although it was "pretty hard" to figure out, Cameron aced his locker combination the first time. Then he tried to squeeze inside.
"I wanted to see if I was small enough to fit in there," he said.
Cameron planned on bringing an "I heart Great Danes" magnet to put on his locker.
"I'm going to have my snow boots in there all the time," he said.
Sam said he was really looking forward to customizing his locker.
"I have mirrors, lights and a small basketball hoop," he said.
Other popular decorations were small rugs, plastic chandeliers and all sorts of magnets, not stickers, which are hard to remove at the end of the school year.
Lewis-Palmer School District 38 in Monument uses a national middle school transition program, Where We Belong, or WEB. The format trains eighth graders to work with the newcomers and mentor them.
In D-38, sixth grade is part of elementary school, and seventh graders are the first middle school class.
"WEB is a great opportunity for our eighth graders to practice leadership and empathy," said Carrie Block, seventh grade world studies teacher at Lewis-Palmer Middle School.
The eighth graders "set the tone for the school year," she said, and befriend the seventh graders.
"That can help the seventh graders feel comfortable and become successful in their new environment," Block said.
At least 75 percent of incoming seventh graders - about 300 students - participate each year, said Teresa Brown, eighth-grade math teacher at Lewis-Palmer Middle School.
The program will be held Monday. School starts in D-38 for every grade on Wednesday.
"The hardest part of transition is that things are different," Block said. "Students seem to have the most trouble adjusting to having six different teachers and expectations. They quickly adapt, though."