Sunday, July 16, 2006

The Disappearing Middle School

A number of larger school systems have been abandoning the traditional middle school in favor of an even more traditional two-school (elementary/high) configuration. In Denver, Colorado, parents are leading the exodus:
Increasing numbers of Denver parents are rejecting middle schools, taking their children instead to kindergarten-through- eighth-grade buildings, or leaving the city altogether, according to enrollment numbers.

This has left many of the existing middle schools poorer, emptier and lower-performing than the K-8 schools.

The parents of almost 2,000 sixth-graders decided against sending their kids to traditional middle schools - which have sixth-, seventh- and eighth- graders - last year, according to a Denver Post analysis of Denver Public Schools numbers.

About 1,000 went to "K-8" or "K-6" schools, and 500 others went to charters. And between 400 and 500 disappeared from DPS altogether.

"You're afraid to let go of your baby," said Karla Loaiza, whose son, Raul, will be a sixth-grader at a K-6 school. "I don't think he's mature enough to go somewhere that has such big kids."

The numbers suggest that Denver parents increasingly share that sentiment. In 2001, 4,887 children were enrolled in sixth grade in DPS at traditional middle schools. Four years later, that number had fallen to 3,739. In that same period, the sixth- grade population in K-6 and K-8 schools rose from 406 to 964.

Although parents seem to be moving away from traditional middle schools, education experts say good teaching and sensitivity to this age group are more important.

Children in these so-called "middle years" tend to lack maturity; they may not be ready to handle the responsibility needed at a middle school where they'd have several teachers and classrooms, experts say.

"The reality is grade configuration alone does not affect student achievement," said Sue Swaim, executive director of the National Middle School Association.

Nationally, school districts struggle with students when they hit adolescence. Test scores fall in reading and writing during the middle years.

And Denver is no exception. In 2004, 46 percent of the city's fifth-graders were proficient readers. That next year, when they were a year older, only 38 percent of sixth-graders were proficient in reading.

This fall, DPS will have 17 K-6, K-7 and K-8 schools. Almost all the K-8 schools are "schools of choice," which means students must apply to attend.

K-8 schools usually have no lockers and fewer separate classes in a day, and small children still run around on the playground.

Parents and teachers often treat middle schools as miniaturized high schools, giving the kids too much independence, said Gary Sulley, a veteran Denver middle school teacher. "And that doesn't work because they're still little kids."

DPS Superintendent Michael Bennet's reform document, "The Denver Plan," urges all schools to improve student performance, but there is little about what to do with middle-year children.

"The former regime had no plan for middle-aged kids, and the current regime needs to get a really good plan for middle-aged kids fast," said Van Schoales, a program officer at the Piton Foundation.

Brad Jupp, a senior DPS administrator, said he worries about so many Denver students leaving the district, either before middle school starts - or after the sixth grade.

At Kunsmiller Middle, for example, the sixth-grade class in 2003 had 309 kids. By 2005, when most of them should have been eighth-graders, only 178 kids were in that grade.

"The wrong-headed response to this trend would be to limit choice," Jupp said. "The right- headed response would be to investigate that choice and try and meet high academic options."
To try to improve student performance, all Denver middle school students who are below grade level will have double classes in reading and math this fall.

Other districts in the metro area aren't facing such drastic shifts out of middle schools. But superintendents elsewhere say they, too, see that parents are nervous about mixing sixth- graders with predominantly older kids.

Both Douglas and Jefferson counties have created "seventh- and eighth-grade" middle schools, in order to keep 11-year- olds in elementaries.

"Parents, I believe, really like the sixth grade in the elementary," said Jim Christensen, superintendent of Douglas County Schools, which has mostly seventh- and eighth-grade middle schools.

Jefferson County has only two traditional K-8 schools, though Superintendent Cindy Stevenson said she thinks the fewer transitions, the better for kids.

"We would rather have more continuity," she said.

For Denver mother Karen Ray, the decision on where to send her oldest daughter, Lucy, in her middle years was trying.

The girl went to a Denver charter for elementary school. Ray checked out Morey and Hamilton middle schools in Denver, but neither school tried to woo her family in the door, and "they just seemed way too big."

Ray chose St. Mary's Academy, a private school, where, she said, expectations seemed higher.

Colorado is one of only six states in the country that does not require middle school teachers to have specific middle- years training.

"I think the reality is we don't have a national middle-years policy. We focus on elementary, and that's critical, and we look at high schools," said Swaim. "The success we want in high school reform isn't going to occur unless we start paying attention to middle schools."

Parents' wariness of middle schools is also costly to districts.

From 2003 through 2005, DPS lost more than 800 students between fifth and sixth grade. Each student is worth about $6,600 in funding to the district. And all but one of Denver's 17 middle school buildings are only half-full - and three middle schools were closed in the past five years. If every school were at capacity, the district would be pulling in $26 million more each year.

Ann Greenfield, the principal at Merrill Middle School, is trying to win over cautious parents by making her school safe and the classes academically solid.

She recognizes that parents have strong feelings about middle schools and their children.

"It is an individual decision for each family," she said.
Personally, I'm somewhat leery of having 8th graders on the same campus as 1st graders. But then again, in this post-NCLB world, reality requires that school districts be willing to try new solutions in order to comply with Congressional mandates and those of Washington's ivory tower EduCracy.
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