Middle schools: an endangered species?

After they’ve had a few beers, Linda Jury’s sons reminisce about their middle school days. They joke that when they acquire their first million dollars, they’ll donate funds to Folwell Middle School, under the condition that the 3611 20th Ave. S. school immortalizes them in a statue.

Despite the humor, the Jurys cherish their middle school years – a rewarding notion for a mom who was active in a ’90s reform initiative to strengthen 6th-through-8th-grade education, when her sons went to Folwell.

Such fondness for middle schools isn’t common. Parents instinctively shudder at their own hormonally challenged days – but a decade ago, a sort of panic permeated Minneapolis middle grade schools, Jury recalled. Horror stories were so pervasive that people fabricated home addresses or claimed psychological problems so their kids could go to a K-8 school.

Jury’s sons are older now, and she’s stepped away from middle-school reform efforts. But the desire for change continues unabated.

The Minneapolis School District is currently evaluating the program that Jury’s group inspired – the Platform for Effective Middle Grade Education.

The Platform emphasizes family and community support, project-based work and "small learning communities" for kids ages 10-15.

This month, Supt. Thandiwe Peebles will coordinate a task force to review the Platform’s implemented – driven by a district-directed 2004-05 study that found students "in K-8 schools were making greater progress toward state standards than middle schools."

Even more haunting for parents choosing between K-8s and middle schools: "School climate, student discipline, family involvement, and overall student and staff satisfaction were higher in K-8 schools compared to middle schools based on surveys over the past five years."

The report concluded, "Overall, the middle school reforms, which have taken place over the past five years, do not appear to have produced large academic gains in grades 6, 7 and 8."

The document includes several caveats: for example, North Side students fared poorly in both K-8s and middle schools; meanwhile, Southwest K-8s such as Barton Open, 4237 Colfax Ave. S., and Lake Harriet, 4030 Chowen Ave. S. and 4912 Vincent Ave. S. have exceptionally stable staffs who helped studens produce bigger-than-predicted test score gains.

Ultimately, low faculty turnover may matter more whether a school is K-8 or 6-8. As the report noted, "Core instructional staff stability was a strong predictor of middle-school student success" – more so than the implementation of the middle school Platform reforms.

What the data show

To compare 6th-through-8th-graders in K-8s versus middle schools, the district analyzed pass rates on state basic skills tests from 2000 to 2004. Many results were broken into geographic quadrants, such as Southwest.

For reading, Southwest K-8 pass rates were 70.6 percent versus 67.2 percent in Southwest’s two middle school, Anthony, 5757 Irving Ave. S. and Anwatin, 256 Upton Ave. S. In math, the figures were 60.6 percent versus 53.5 percent, respectively.

Many partisans maintain that a straight-up comparison isn’t fair because of differences in staff stability and poverty rates.

The study acknowledges collective differences between Southwest K-8s and Anthony/Anwatin.


  • Students in poverty: 47.8 percent at K-8s, 53.1 percent at the middle schools.



  • Students enrolled a full year: 91.4 percent at K-8s, 85 percent in middle school.



  • Staff turnover: 27 percent at K-8s, 42 percent at the middle schools.



Such differences lead School Board member Lydia Lee to call the plethora of study results "inconclusive."


Lee said the biggest issue is staff turnover – which is greatest in Minneapolis middle schools. The Platform was most successful where students, staff and parents were constant, Lee said.

The report didn’t include data that factored out faculty turnover. However, there was a statistic that controlled for student variables such as poverty, native language, special education and race/ethnicity.

It’s called "value added." The district measures a 5th grader’s standardized test score, then makes a prediction using various formulas of how what the score will be in 8th grade. Higher-than-predicted scores yield a higher "value added"; lower-than-predicted scores are negative.

At Southwest schools, K-8 test scores rose nearly 5 points, but at Anthony/Anwatin, they fell 6 points – meaning that, overall, middle school students actually regressed. K-8 math scores also rose by 5 points, while middle school scores fell about 3 points.

(District officials, citing unpublished results, say Anthony has shown significant improvement over the past decade – leaving the implication that Anwatin is Southwest’s problem middle school.)

Stephanie Carlson, a secondary literacy specialist in the district and parent of children at Ramsey Fine Arts, 1 W. 49th St., downplays the differences between K-8 and middle schools.

Carlson said that Minnesota Basic Skills Test (MBST) reading scores have improved over the last four years at every school – including Anthony and Anwatin – despite demographic changes. The biggest jump occurred in 2005, 12 percent overall.

Carlson is well versed in the statistics and their implications because she collected and analyzed data for the district’s MBST report, which is more recent than the middle-school analysis. Carlson also wrote the report’s reading section.

For example, she noted that 96 percent of Minneapolis’ white students not in poverty passed the reading test – compared to 97 percent of Edina kids.

So what about kids in poverty?

Pass rates for students in poverty rose 13 percent to 53 percent – they scored as well or better than similar students in the suburbs. For students with limited-English proficiency, the pass rate rose from 23 percent to 50 percent.

Reading progress for nonwhite kids was nearly identical in K-8s and middle schools, Carlson said.

Parent views

As a lasting credit to the ’90s reform, middle schools have gained defenders even as district numbers favor K-8s.

Generally, Minneapolis K-8s lack some of the electives that middle schools can provide. For example, many K-8 schools don’t offer as much foreign language instruction – either number of languages or class time – because a much lower percentage of students takes a foreign language than at a middle school, school officials said.

Advanced placement and international baccalaureate classes are also more widely available in middle schools.

However, the gap is narrowing – perversely, because of declining enrollment. Minneapolis Middle Grades Academic Supt. Eleanor Coleman said because the district has consolidated schools, K-8s have more students – and can add more programs.

District officials say the K-8 structure can offer more personalized attention for at-risk youth, though middle school is more developmentally appropriate for 11-14-year-olds who aren’t thrown in with kindergarteners and 1st-graders. Others disagree, saying the camaraderie between the elementary and middle grade kids provides extra time for kids just to be kids, not necessarily miniature grown-ups – with the pressures that come with adulthood.

At Kenny Elementary School, 5720 Emerson Ave. S., K-5 students gaze hopefully up the hill towards Anthony Middle School, just beyond the park.

To these students, middle school represents a launching pad that sets them apart from "little kids," allowing them to meet new friends, establish independence from their parents, make choices about their learning and gain confidence.

Darwin Lee, a Kenny 5th-grade teacher, said that the schools’ proximity to each other established a rapport and coherence. "I know where these kids are going for 6th grade. I can have them ready," said Lee (no relation to Lydia Lee).

Initially, Darwin Lee’s son struggled at Anthony, scoring Ds and Fs because he didn’t turn in his work (even though he completed his assignments). Lee contacted the teachers to find out what was wrong.

The teachers created a folder system where the boy placed his assignments. They collected his work and penned notes in his daily planner to his parents. They offered to tutor him before and after school. Soon, the boy became a "straight A" student.

Darwin Lee said he was proud of the teachers, who he said were in tune with his son’s needs. "What impressed me the most was that they wanted him to be part of the solution and really focused on what he needed. They made him feel comfortable to come to them with questions and concerns," Darwin Lee said.

That underscored the point that middle schools helped kids flourish at a "tender age." A cadre of professionals, including principals, teachers, counselors and administrators were trained specifically to interact with the kids who some called idea-driven, wacky, spontaneous, brutally honest (for better or for worse) and fun.

That varied from K-8 schools where most of the teachers and administrators were trained to handle elementary kids’ needs specifically, Darwin Lee said. Middle-school kids’ developmental differences aren’t acknowledged, he added.

Anthony parent Shelley Theisen also finds middle schools more nurturing than elementary schools. "Teachers have a professional commitment to this age group. They know their milestones, and they can support them," she said.

Theisen, a Bloomington school social worker, was also pleased with her son’s progress at Anthony. She liked the rhythm the elementary/middle rotation provided for her family, which includes a kindergartener, a 7th-grader and 3-year-old.

When Theisen’s kindergartener left for elementary school in the morning, her middle-school son slept in thanks to a later start time. Studies have shown older kids need to wake up later in the morning.

Theisen’s 7th-grader also comes home from school later, which wouldn’t be the case in a K-8 school. Theisen is home by the time her oldest child returns, a relief because it helps keep him out of trouble in the afternoon – considered prime time for adolescent criminal behavior. And when he gets home, Mom is present to supervise.

Theisen treasures the quality time she gets to spend with her son in the evenings, when the younger kids are asleep. She also appreciates the large middle school setting because it helps students grow socially.

"It was very exciting for him to have a whole new set of potential friends. In small settings, social circles can get pretty entrenched. If you don’t fit in, you might have a hard time," she said.

She said her 7th-grader "is really on that edge, really struggling between independence from parents and just relying on a peer group. But he still needs his family. It’s a tug o’ war."

Theisen was reluctant to choose a K-8 for her kindergartener because of so many grades contained in the same space. She instead chose Kenny.

Not every parent is a believer. Diane Thayer-Peterson was an editorial board member for the middle-school reform newsletter "Middle’s Cool." However, she said that she preferred the K-8 model because "everyone knows you when. Kids who might get lost in a middle school get more help in a K-8."

Her son went to Anwatin Middle School, while her daughter attended Lake Harriet, a K-8.

"Peer pressure is strong at that age. It’s not good to put that many kids together," said Thayer-Peterson, who herself is an 8th-grade teacher in an Apple Valley middle school. "The K-8 keeps kids younger in some ways. An 8th-grader can walk down the hallway and see their kindergarten teacher. It keeps them more connected in a small learning community."

Still, she confessed that there was a trade-off. Some middle grade kids feel like their treatment is more childish in a K-8 school. Although she admitted that it could be nice to look forward to middle school, she saw K-8 schools as "humanizing," since older kids watched out for the younger ones.

Carlson, the district literacy specialist and Ramsey parent, said that her daughters enjoy the best of both worlds. Although a K-8, Ramsey’s 868-student body is large enough to provide language instruction, art, dance and music. Students stay with the same teacher for two years.

The school is also set up a bit like a middle school, in a different building area, with longer class periods (though not a longer school day).

The concept

Dorothy Hoffman, a social studies resource person for K-5 schools and former middle school coordinator, helped design middle school reform’s tenets.

Among the principles: keeping students in smaller, more personalized learning groups, assigning more project-based work than daily work, and trying to relate that to their lives.

The day shrank from seven periods to four, so that kids didn’t lose as many minutes passing from one class to the next. Teacher representatives meet with district officials every month or two to coordinate their efforts.

They originated teachers’ accountability to deliver certain instructions for specific criteria and made a lot of progress. Back in the mid-to-late ’90s, under the middle school reform initiative, kids spent two or three years with the same teacher, providing a basis of consistency.

"It was amazing what we were able to do together because we knew each other so well," Hoffman said. "We accomplished a great deal. Schools that implemented the platform are doing well."

However, there were some cracks in the system. Middle grades – at K-8s and middle schools – are seen by teachers as a steppingstone to high school, so newer teachers wind up teaching 6th, 7th and 8th grades. Since these teachers don’t have seniority, they are cut or relocated on an ongoing basis. High staff turnover doesn’t allow for consistent application of the Platform. Such schools, with many kids in poverty, also had low enrollment that limited team teaching.

These schools start over every year. There’s less time to acclimate, create a community and absorb the curriculum.

Said Hoffman, "We need to protect schools that need constancy. It doesn’t have to be veterans. Teachers just need to be able to stay."

Lydia Lee, who trained teachers before becoming a School Board member, said, "I firmly believe in the quality of the Platform. I’ve been very disappointed in how we’ve been unable to reach full implementation; that’s where we need to work."




School days, Southwest K-8s versus middle schools


Start late …
Barton (K-8) 7:30 a.m.
Emerson (K-8) 7:30 a.m.
Windom (K-8) 7:30 a.m.
Lake Harriet (K-8, both campuses) 9:10 a.m.
Anthony (middle) 9:30 a.m.
Anwatin (middle 9:30 a.m.
Jefferson (K-8) 9:40 a.m.
Ramsey (K-8) 9:40 a.m.

… end late
Barton (K-8) 1:45 p.m.
Emerson (K-8) 1:45 p.m.
Windom (K-8) 1:45 p.m.
Lake Harriet (K-8, both campuses) 3:25 p.m.
Jefferson (K-8) 3:55 p.m.
Ramsey (K-8) 3:55 p.m.
Anthony (middle) 4 p.m.
Anwatin (middle) 4 p.m.