High school starts in 6th grade

Print More
Lorraine Forte

Lorraine Forte

Lorraine Cruz had been an assistant principal at a school in Little Village for only eight days when CPS officials recruited her to take over Ames Middle in Logan Square, where a revolving door of principals had come and gone in recent years.

Since then, Cruz has instilled order at the school, even resorting to having her own nephew escorted from the school in handcuffs to show she meant business. However, Cruz had a deeper strategy for improvement: Train teachers to meet the unique needs of adolescents, something Cruz says is a must-have for middle-school teachers.

Training is the linchpin of the district’s pilot Middle Grades Project, quietly launched last year (with funding from The Chicago Community Trust) to make school better for kids who are not quite teenagers but no longer youngsters. The majority of CPS elementary schools are K-8, and until the pilot, the special needs of adolescents in grades 6 through 8 have been too often lost in the educational mix. At this age, when kids’ cognitive development is taking a leap forward and high school is fast approaching, it just doesn’t work to keep students locked in the one-teacher-for-all-subjects, one-classroom-all-day model.

So far, teacher training has focused on beefing up content knowledge in math and science. That’s a great first start, since most elementary and middle-grades teachers don’t have degrees in or deep knowledge of these subjects. The district also should plow ahead with efforts, like Cruz’s, to train teachers to meet students’ developmental needs—no easy task, given the myriad emotional and physical changes that “tweens” experience.

The pilot is a much-needed effort that must bear fruit if another initiative, High School Transformation, is to have a chance at real success. You can’t wait until 9th grade to start “transforming” school for kids who haven’t had any exposure to algebra or been taught how to read for content and not just “how to read.”

Access to the best

Better middle-grades education, especially in lower-income black neighborhood schools, would help reverse a disheartening trend: the decline in the percentage of black enrollment in the city’s elite public high schools. These showcase schools are becoming less diverse, as Associate Editor Sarah Karp reports in this issue. That’s a tragedy, both for those black kids who aren’t getting a shot at a top-tier high school education, and for the white, Hispanic and Asian kids who are getting fewer opportunities to mix with black students on an equal footing in the classroom.

But the problem isn’t that these schools are becoming too white (the percentage of Hispanics in selective schools has held fairly steady, as has the percentage of Asians). Nor is the problem high admissions standards—there’s no reason why black kids can’t meet entry standards if they have the right background. That’s the real issue: Preparation. Too often, inferior education at neighborhood elementary schools means that black kids aren’t ready for the rigors of a Payton or Northside. Ensuring seats for them at these schools won’t help much if they don’t have the educational tools to succeed once they arrive.

It’s anyone’s guess how the situation will shake out should the district win its battle to kill the desegregation consent decree, which at least requires some measure of integration in selective schools. But the district should take a serious look at one solution crafted by Jones College Prep, which is recruiting kids from communities that send few students to the school—making geography, not race, an admissions factor. Another solution is to ensure that newer selective schools in minority neighborhoods provide the best of educational options. Or, make selective school admission a true lottery: All kids who meet the test score threshold or have top grades get an equal shot at admission.

ABOUT US: Editor-in-Chief Veronica Anderson is on sabbatical until mid-November. Deputy Editor Lorraine Forte is serving as editor-in-chief during her absence.