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Jon Krause illustration
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Tomahawk Creek Principal David Ellena says his school places students on teams that are named after college mascots, so kids identify with institutions of higher learning. photo by Sarah Walor
It's the Bermuda Triangle of the K-12 system — the point at which tomorrow's dropouts begin their disappearing acts. That's how educators describe the angst-filled middle school years.
For decades, these midway schools were an unexamined part of the K-12 system, viewed as a bridge between more critical elementary and high schools. But recent research indicates that the kids who will fail or drop out in high school show warning signs as early as sixth grade.
"If a kid is in eighth grade and he's starting to fail classes, that's when the downward spiral is starting to happen," says Mark Chamberlain, principal of Short Pump Middle School, recognized nationally and by the state for educational excellence. That's not to say they're doomed, he says, but succeeding in school "becomes more challenging. If kids are doing poorly in seventh and eighth grade, chances are that they will continue to do poorly."
It's in middle school, too, that kids begin to stray onto paths that lead to drug use and teen pregnancy, says William Bosher, former state superintendent of public instruction. For example he says, the risk factor for early pregnancy is adolescents' mix of adult and childish emotions, including the alienation that they frequently feel toward parents and adults.
"It's rarely that a young person gets pregnant because they don't know how it happens," Bosher says. "It's because a young person is reaching out for someone to love."
Remarking on the national scene, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said in a June address to the National Forum for Middle Grades Reform, "The middle grades present the last, best opportunity for educators to really reach all students."
As educators recognize the perils facing adolescents, middle schools nationally and regionally are trying new strategies. In the Richmond region, schools are using teaming to strengthen students' relationships with peers and teachers and to counteract the depersonalization that occurs when schools get too big. And they're providing community mentors and after-school services to offer support middle schoolers may not have at home.
With all of those challenges in mind, we also decided to rank the 38 public middle schools in our region. We've included a chart and a detailed explanation of the methodology (follow this link ), but here's the short version:
We relied on statistics available from the state Department of Education's School Report Cards, since those figures are uniformly reported. For help with creating the statistical model, inputting figures and doing the math, we turned to the statistics department at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU). Before deciding upon criteria and how to weigh them, we consulted with public school teachers and administrators, as well as education experts in academia.
We ended up relying on a typical measure — students' scores on the Standards of Learning tests (SOLs), used by the state to evaluate and accredit schools, but we used them in an atypical way. We emphasized pass/advanced scores, since those indicate mastery of the topic, and put far less weight on pass/proficient, which educators view as a low standard that schools should exceed.
"Pass/proficient is a minimum," says Gayle Sutton, assistant principal at Chesterfield's Matoaca Middle School and a representative for the Virginia Middle School Association. "If you were sitting with a table of educators, the goal that they would want for their kids is pass advanced." (While students must earn about a 90, or a B+, to get a pass/advanced, they can get pass/proficient by answering as few as half the questions correctly on an SOL test.) We also relied on statistics for student misconduct and violence, since educators agree that kids must have a safe place to learn, and on the governor's awards for excellence in education, since they measure the number of students middle schools are able to enroll in algebra by eighth grade — an indicator that we wanted our ranking to reflect.
Once the numbers were crunched, the results mirrored the economic disparity in the Richmond region. Our top schools are clustered in the most affluent zones of Chesterfield, Henrico and Hanover counties. Schools further down on the ranking or in the middle are scattered in mixed- and middle-income regions of those counties, as well as Goochland, Powhatan and New Kent. Many of the lower-ranked schools are in economically distressed areas of the city of Richmond.
The gap is particularly noticeable in Henrico, home to top- and bottom-ranked schools. Pocahontas and Short Pump middle schools — both in high-income areas — were ranked first and second, but L. Douglas Wilder, which is surrounded by affluent homes but draws its students from low-income and subsidized housing, was close to the bottom.
That's because how well kids do on standardized tests depends "on the discretionary income of the parents," says Christopher Corallo, executive director of organizational development for Henrico's school district. Wealthy parents are able to expose their kids to more experiences and provide them with "more awareness of the world," via activities such as travel, vacations and summer camps, he says. That, in turn, develops their vocabulary, which is the basis for learning, he says.
He says it would be far more helpful if our school ranking compared schools in areas of similar socioeconomic status, where, for example, all the houses were equally priced.
In addition to reflecting economic realities, our rankings wound up mirroring state evaluations. Our top schools also received the Governor's Educational Excellence Awards or were on other state VIP school lists in recent years. Short Pump Middle School, our second-ranked school, made the National Forum's 2011 Schools to Watch list; fewer than 300 schools in the nation made the list this year, and Short Pump is the only school in the Richmond region to be on it.
Short Pump's Chamberlain says that his school's performance arises from the stability that comes with steadier family incomes.
"Schools that performed below us probably don't have the stability we've had," he says, pointing out that 85 percent of Short Pump's eighth-graders had been there since sixth grade. "We've had them from the beginning. I know the students. The counselors know the students, and the students know the support system is there for them." The stability extends not only to the student body but also to teachers, who tend to stay at Short Pump, he says.
Plus, the largely college-educated parents at Short Pump demand much of their kids. "They're telling their kids, ‘It's not a question of whether you succeed but how big you will succeed,' " Chamberlain says. "It's not that low-income families don't have high expectations of their kids, but if parents are working two jobs, as much as they'd like to support the kids, it's limited."
Tomahawk Creek Principal David Ellena, too, points to parental expectations. "We're very fortunate to have highly involved parents — parents that put a high priority on education." He adds that as a new principal this fall, he's carrying on the achievements of the school's previous administration. "They're the ones who have put in the work. I'm just keeping it moving in the right direction."
But since both wealthy and low-income kids generally are held to the same measures — standardized tests in school, SATs for entrance to colleges, job applications later in life — administrators can't simply chalk up poor scores to socioeconomics. Instead, they're faced with trying to overcome income-related obstacles, which is what Henrico is trying to do.
Schools serving economically disadvantaged students take kids on field trips to various locales — college campuses and Washington, D.C., among them, says Mychael Dickerson, spokesman for Henrico's school district. The trips are part of a broader mentoring program, in which teachers and community members work with kids one-on-one, teaching them everything from academic content to table etiquette. Although such programs take place at schools throughout the county, "we really focus on schools where we know the deprivation is higher," Dickerson says.
Corallo says that since teachers have a tendency to leave low-income areas, Henrico has established an incentive system at "highest need" schools, among them Fairfield and Wilder middle schools. The system increases the pay of teachers who can demonstrate their effectiveness through the improved SOL scores of their students.
Richmond school district spokeswoman Felicia Cosby says that since the city has a "transient population," schools follow the same course-content schedule. That way students whose families move from one part of the city to another will be able to keep up with classes, even if they're skipping from school to school.
Since some students may not be getting support at home, the Richmond district is trying to provide it through its "Renaissance program," launched this fall and targeting middle schools, says chief academic officer Victoria Oakley. Under the program, schools have extended hours so that students who may not have stable families or communities to return to at night can still do their homework in a predictable environment. Kids who do well enough to become part of a special "scholars" program can stay as late as 7 p.m.
Other kids will be "mentored" by community members, Cosby says, and in a version of the specialty-center program employed at regional high schools, "focus" middle schools will specialize in subjects: visual arts at Binford, business at Boushall, global affairs at Lucille Brown, world languages at Elkhardt, leadership at Albert Hill, health and science at Martin Luther King, legal studies at Henderson, and science, technology, engineering and mathematics at Thompson.
Says Oakley, "Although a child might not have the same support in his or her family or surroundings, with the Renaissance program, we're creating a community of support."
What Middle Schoolers Need
Regardless of whether they come from high- or low-income families, virtually all middle school kids are like a perfect storm of developmental milestones. In the bloom of adolescence, they're maturing sexually and beginning the process of finding adult identities.
Says VCU associate professor of education Nora Alder, "Middle school kids are looking to figure out how they fit into the world and with their peers. If they don't find a place, they're lost."
The abyss that middle school can become for students was particularly apparent after publication several years ago of a study by Johns Hopkins University research scientist Robert Balfanz. His work showed that about 75 percent of the kids who drop out of poor, urban schools can be indentified before they enter ninth grade. The warning signs are spotty attendance, a record of misbehavior and suspension, and earning low grades in English, language arts and math, or withdrawing from those classes altogether.
Raising more red flags, national surveys show that threats of attack by students, with and without weapons, as well as bullying and sexual harassment, are more prevalent in middle school than high school, Duncan says. He describes early adolescence as "the wonder years and the worry years."
Still, there's only scant research on how to make education effective during the awkward transition from elementary to high school, says Megan Beckett, a researcher for the RAND Corp., the California-based nonprofit that is among the nation's most well-respected think tanks. "We don't know yet what it takes to make them thrive," she says. "It's still a black box."
She says that what is clear, from formal research and anecdotal observations, is that middle school "is when the dropouts start happening." Now, she says, middle school "is starting to get on peoples' radar."
In fact, some middle schools have taken dramatic steps. In Chicago, schools have been trying to identify ninth graders who display Balfanz' early warning signs, but now they're extending that effort into middle schools, Duncan says.
In a growing national trend, some 500 schools, most elementary and middle, are trying out single-sex classrooms, largely because research indicates that male and female children develop cognitively and behaviorally at different rates and may benefit, as a result, from teaching and discipline tailored for their genders. "Once the process of puberty is completed, the benefits of same-sex education diminish," says Leonard Sax, director of the National Association for Single Sex Public Education.
Virginia schools have been pioneers, among them Woodbridge Middle School, which is heading into its fourth year of single-sex classes. Principal Skyles Calhoun has told reporters that performance gaps between girls and boys have decreased in some areas, while attendance has improved slightly. Plus, boys say they like single-gender classes better, he says.
Richmond public schools have experimented with single-sex education, which was tried out in some city schools in recent years. But the innovation, driven primarily by individual principals, was never applied broadly to the district.
In the Richmond region, most school districts use some form of "teaming." The idea is to create smaller groups of students, who usually share the same classes and teachers, often throughout their middle school years. The approach is used to deal with everything from the anxiety that arises from feeling lost in a crowd to keeping kids from dropping off of teachers' radar.
At Short Pump, student teams meet regularly for group academic counseling sessions, where kids can discuss just about anything but usually focus on dealing with their studies, Principal Chamberlain says.
At Tomahawk Creek, students are placed on teams based largely on academic needs and then scheduled for the same classes with the same six teachers. The approach reduces isolation, even for socially awkward students, since they go to class, eat lunch, study and hang out with the same kids from sixth through eighth grades.
Says Principal Ellena, "It's not just a team of students. It's a team of teachers. The teachers can collaborate in their instruction of their students. They can design instruction depending on how kids in their groups learn." Plus, the teams are named after state university mascots, so that kids learn to identify with institutions of higher education, he says.
At Chickahominy, teaming counteracts the daunting size of the population, more than 1,200 students who feed into the school from five elementary schools. Sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade classes that would comprise hundreds of students are broken into units of 100 to 150 kids. Then "we can specifically work through kids' needs," Principal Arco says. "Because of that … kids stay on your radar."
And the Hanover school is hardly the only regional middle school coping with swarms of adolescents.
Nearly one-third of the middle schools in our region serve more than 1,000 students, and most of the rest serve more than 500 kids. That reflects a national trend, in which middle schools, following the model of high schools, have become larger and larger, and it's the biggest mistake of all, according to Bosher, also a former Henrico and Chesterfield county school superintendent.
Huge student populations, he says, work to pre-empt the personal attention so powerfully needed by middle schoolers.
"If I had a magic wand, I would make the middle schools the smallest schools in the system," Bosher says. "They should probably have some of the smallest student-teacher ratios to maintain a sense of community and of family. Most studies indicate that when a young person is a ‘resilient at-risk young person,' that occurs because there is at least one person in that student's life that gives a rip about what they do. And the student understands that they give a rip. But when the student feels that nobody cares … then they're far more likely not to make it."