Finding the right approach

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Chicago is not alone in targeting middle-grades students. Other urban districts are doing the same, hoping to give students a better foundation heading into high school. Here’s a sample:

More time for learning

At Boston Public Schools, administrators believe time is the key to success. In 2005, three of the city’s 17 middle schools extended the school day by 11 hours each week. While most of the extra time is spent teaching reading and math, the longer school day also gives students the chance to take electives such as arts, music or physical education.

Despite a school day that starts as early as 7:20 a.m. and ends as late as 4:30 p.m. for four days each week (the fifth day is shorter), principals are reporting higher attendance, reduced tardiness and improved morale. The longer school day also has improved test scores. After one year, 32 percent of 6th-graders at Edwards Middle School met state standards in math, up from 15 percent the year earlier.

Stronger bonds, better performance

When Kansas City, Kan., Public Schools looked for a way to improve the performance of its middle schools, it decided smaller would be better. Ditto for the Los Angeles Unified School District. Both systems were faced with low test scores, pressure from No Child Left Behind and large middle schools where adolescents could be lost in the shuffle.

For the last 10 years, Kansas City has been creating small learning communities, in which small groups of students are paired with a group of teachers. Those groups stay together, moving between classes and grades, throughout the students’ middle-school years. The idea is to create bonds between students and teachers, teachers and families, and schools and communities, says spokesman David A. Smith.

In 2006, 47 percent of 7th-graders met or exceeded the state standard in math, up from 36 percent in 2004.

Los Angeles is just beginning to explore the small team approach. The system is creating personalized learning environments of between 150 and 500 middle-schoolers each.

This year, schools are developing the goals. Next year, they will submit their plans. By the third year, all middle schools will implement the personalized learning environments. “They’re building a common vision and looking at their data to see what’s in the best interest of the kids,” says Larry Tash, director of the Office of School Redesign.

Helping struggling schools

New York City middle schools have been struggling with high drop out rates and low academic performance, especially among minority students, for many years. “It took us too long to recognize that students in those grades need a specific approach,” says Maibe Gonzalez-Fuentes, spokeswoman for the New York City Department of Education.

In August, Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced an initiative to raise academic performance in middle schools, “where too many of our students begin to lose their footing.” The city created a $5 million fund to be distributed on a per-capita basis to the 51 lowest-performing middle schools. The schools can use the money to train teachers, hire additional guidance counselors or for other needs, says Gonzalez-Fuentes.

Opting for K-8

School districts in Kansas City, Mo., and Philadelphia have given up on middle schools altogether. Both are reverting to a K-8 system.

Philadelphia already has closed most of its middle schools; Kansas City’s will close over the next three years.

Kansas City Supt. Anthony Amato points to research that shows middle-grades students in K-8 schools get expelled significantly less often and are much more likely to come to school than their counterparts in middle schools. Research also shows students lose as much as 15 points in their reading levels when they move from an elementary to a middle school, he says.

The transition from the controlled, nurturing environment of elementary school, where a child has just one teacher, is problematic, Amato says. In middle schools, “teachers become teachers of a subject area versus teachers of children. That makes a significant difference in the way they behave with kids, their expectations and results,” he says.

The district will provide leadership training to turn 8th-graders into mentors for younger kids, and require middle-grades students to perform community service. Keeping the students in grammar school also helps keep parents connected to the school, a key component of improved student performance.

Parents and students at Garfield Elementary School seem to like the change, says Principal Gwendolyn Squires. “Most of the parents are happy they’re going to remain in the same setting they spent their K-5 years.” And 6th-graders love it, she says. “Most of them had fears of going on, so they’re glad to be here.”

Philadelphia has also been developing ways to keep its 2,300 over-age students from dropping out. In its Middle Grades Acceleration Program, students were given more instruction in core subjects and required to attend tutoring sessions. Advisors made the biggest difference by helping students both in school and at home.

“What students commented on most was having that person there in the classroom who believed in them,” says Nancy Bratton, executive director of middle-grades education.

Contact Kristin Maun at editor@catalyst-chicago.org.