Finding the middle path

KENNY – On a warm May afternoon, Jackie Hanson, principal of Anthony Middle School, sat down to talk about a new district effort to reform middle grades education. Immediately, she was interrupted.

A student walked into the empty classroom where Hanson was meeting with a reporter and began to complain. The student was held back from a class field trip because she hadn’t completed her schoolwork, and she was sick of spending the afternoon in Hanson’s office across the hall.

"You need to sit on the bench," Hanson told the student, firmly. "You made a choice."

Middle-school students constantly test their boundaries, Hanson explained after the student left the room. It’s how young adolescents "figure out who they are" at a time when they are experiencing profound physical, emotional and social change, she said.

"They’re just naturally more challenging at this age," Hanson said. "They want to know what’s acceptable and what’s not."

Everyone in Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS) – from teachers to principals to district administrators – needs to understand the unique challenges of educating 6th-, 7th- and 8th-graders. More importantly, they must understand the high cost of failing students at a critical time in their lives.

That’s just one recommendation from the National Middle School Association (NMSA), whose representatives spent several months assessing the district early in the school year. The NMSA report may lead to a new push for middle-grades reform, several years after the last effort lost steam.

Finding a core curriculum that varied from school to school, the NMSA recommended standards for both coursework and evaluation. It also encouraged teachers to go beyond the lecture format to engage students in their lessons.

The NMSA also called for smaller class sizes, more school counselors and the resolve in district administration to make tough choices.

Jack Berckemeyer, NMSA assistant executive director, said middle-grades performance is linked to success in high school and later in life. In Minneapolis, for instance, those who read at grade level in 6th grade are more likely to graduate than peers who lag behind.

"Great districts lead from the middle because it’s their last, best chance," Berckemeyer told the School Board in April. "If you don’t get [students] in middle school, they’re gone forever."

Not the first time

This is not the first attempt to reform middle-grades education in Minneapolis Public Schools.

In 1997, the district formed a task force of principals, teachers, parents and community members to recommend improvements. A year later, the task force produced the Middle Grades Platform, a roadmap for reform that drew heavily on NMSA recommendations.

While many of the platform recommendations remain on the books, the focused push for reform fizzled by 2003.

Karen Pedersen, associate superintendent of middle schools, said declining enrollment and a growing budget deficit sapped the resources for reform. Also,

Pedersen added, it simply was time to pause and reflect after five years of effort.

But data collected in the years since has shown room remains for improvement.

"We were finding with middle schools, regarding achievement, … we just weren’t as successful as we needed to be," Pedersen said.

She said middle-school students are not making the hoped-for gains in performance on the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment tests in reading and math, the standardized tests that determine if schools are making progress toward state achievement standards under the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

Four of the district’s seven 6th-8th-grade middle schools were making adequate yearly progress toward state goals after the last round of testing. But only four of the 22 K-8 and pre-K-8 schools made adequate yearly progress.

Also, Pedersen added, the middle grades remain hot spots for behavior problems.

"We still have a spike in suspensions in middle schools," she said.

Pedersen said five schools have outpaced all others in middle-school achievement, including Barton Open School and Lake Harriet Community School in Southwest. The others were Field Community School, Seward Montessori School and Emerson Spanish Immersion Learning Center.

Clues to reform

Those success stories point the way to one possible reform that could stem from this latest effort.

Pedersen said each of the five most successful middle-grades programs lower turnover in their teaching staff and school leadership. They have overcome a problem that particularly affects middle schools.

School Board member Lydia Lee, a former teacher who spent 12 years instructing middle-school students, said middle-school classrooms tend to have the district’s "youngest and most inexperienced teachers."

Lee said young adolescents are widely considered the most challenging age group to teach and, as a result, fewer education students train to teach those grades. Some teachers may take a temporary middle-school position before moving on to teach high school.

Hanson said those teachers committed to middle-grades education need more resources.

At Armatage, teachers lost their daily "teaming hour" to budget cuts. That time was essential for developing the creative lessons that engage students, she said.

Hanson said middle schools also need increased funding for school guidance counselors and social workers, as recommended by the NMSA.

Armatage has one part-time guidance counselor who spends most of her time coordinating student testing. As a result, teachers take on more responsibility for the mental and emotional health of their students, she said.

Hanson and Anwatin Middle School Principal Beth Russell both pointed to one NMSA recommendation as possibly the most critical: reducing class size.

In smaller classes, they said, students are more engaged. They can also form closer bonds with their teacher, notably an adult, at a time when they may be pulling away from their parents.

But smaller classes, like the other changes on the principals’ wish lists, require more funding to be directed to middle schools.

Russell acknowledged it would be hard for district leaders to find those extra resources in these lean times. But then she thought back to what Berckemeyer said about middle school being the "last, best chance" for districts.

"If they really believe that, then they’ve got to support the pieces that are going to help those kids," Russell said.

Reach Dylan Thomas at [email protected] or 436-4391.