Sunday, February 05, 2006

Just Saying "No" To Middle Schools

Large school districts in many parts of the country are closing their middle schools:
Across the nation, large urban school districts are embracing an educational reform as old as the Victorian corset: schools that teach kindergarten through eighth grade.

Perhaps as a throwback to the little red schoolhouse -- or a nod to successful parochial instruction -- public schools in Baltimore, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, Philadelphia and Palm Beach, Fla., are making the switch. The debate is heating up in West Contra Costa schools, where parents hope to present a proposal in the spring.

"It's about the quality of middle schools," said Olinda Elementary School parent Jim Cowen. "One way to fix it is to offer choice."

Some districts have ushered in K-8 to solve enrollment problems. Others view it as an academic intervention, citing studies that show that K-8 students outperform their middle school counterparts on tests. Many administrators say these campuses experience fewer of the discipline problems associated with more crowded -- and decidedly more adult -- middle schools or junior highs.

There are about 5,000 K-8 schools in the nation. More and more, urban administrators say that middle schools do not serve the needs of adolescents.

"I think there's a growing consensus that middle schools just don't work," said Paul Vallas, chief executive officer of the 185,000-student School District of Philadelphia, where Vallas plans to close all but four traditional middle schools and open 137 K-8 campuses by the 2008-09 school year.

The reversion to K-8 started in the East and Midwest in the late 1990s. In the past few years, the popularity of K-8 schools has crept over the Rockies and is finally hitting California.

The 28,000-student Bakersfield school district recently began converting to K-8. The 50,400-student Capistrano school district in Orange County is in the process of turning seven or so schools into K-8 campuses to relieve overcrowding at middle schools. As part of a massive overhaul under state management, the Oakland school district reopened Washington Elementary School as a K-8 this fall.

In the 32,000-student West Contra Costa school district, parents and board member Dave Brown are lobbying for the same. They have enlisted UC Berkeley graduate students to help formulate a proposal for presentation to the West Contra Costa school board this spring.

The movement started as a way to ward off enrollment loss at elementary schools. But as interest grew, parents also cited dissatisfaction with the urban district's middle school test scores and decried the lack of campus safety.

Crespi Junior High School in Richmond scored a 650 out of 1,000 on California's academic performance index. Helms Middle School in San Pablo posted a 575, while Lovonya DeJean Middle in Richmond earned a 556.

"If we don't try to think out of the box, it's going to be more of the same," said Valley View Elementary parent Jeff Sloan, who attended K-8 parochial schools in San Pablo and Richmond as a child.

Milwaukee decided to convert to K-8 half a decade ago. Faced with dwindling head counts at some elementary schools in 2000, Milwaukee Public Schools conducted a survey and found parents in favor of opening up more K-8 schools, according to Arlene Sershon, a Milwaukee schools administrative analyst.

"They felt that it was a safer environment," Sershon said, "that perhaps it was a more nurturing environment, and a smaller environment, as opposed to middle schools." The district's 11 K-8 schools open at the time also tended to earn better test scores, she said.

This fall, Milwaukee Public Schools counts more than 60 schools headed toward K-8 schools. Before parents enroll their children, the district lays out the realities: Middle schools, because of their size, can offer more electives than a K-8.

"They can afford to have an orchestra teacher, or a band teacher, or a Spanish teacher, or a computer lab teacher and a librarian," Sershon said. "Whereas in a K-8 school, you might have a librarian one day a week, and not be able to offer orchestra and Spanish."

The district also ended up spending money on renovating elementary schools so they could accommodate more students. Several former middle schools closed or ended up housing small high school academies and charter schools.

In West Contra Costa, converting three elementary schools to K-8 would cost $850,000 or more, according to a December district analysis. The figure does not include any renovations to either accommodate more students or upgrade buildings with amenities common at middle schools, such as gymnasiums, science labs or theaters.

For Saveth Soun, the K-8 debate presents somewhat of a conundrum.

Her children attend Valley View Elementary School, one of the high-achieving campuses from which the recent push for K-8 sprang. She also teaches English language learners at Adams Middle School, where she has won two teaching awards.

Soun said she understands why parents support extending instruction at a high-achieving school for a few more years.

"That's a valid point," Soun said. "They want to keep up the quality."

However, when a recent K-8 survey arrived in her mailbox, Soun checked the box that said "no" to K-8 schools.

"I'm for the middle school experience, for giving them independence and letting them find out who they are," Soun said.

Middle school serves as a transition to high school. Students can learn how to interact socially in larger groups.

"They get to test their mettle against peer pressure," Soun said. "We need to expose our kids to the real world."

Across the district at Stewart Elementary School, the district's only K-8 and one of four in Contra Costa County, teacher Gary Pastoor disagreed.

"I'm a K-8 proponent," Pastoor said. The 29-year teaching veteran came to the Pinole campus after it converted to K-8 in the mid-1990s, leaving his job as principal at El Sobrante Elementary School.

For Pastoor, the choice is clear: "Burn the junior highs."

Pastoor said they serve as nothing more than holding tanks for the hormonally unstable, who suddenly find themselves hitting the rebellious stage surrounded with 800 to 1,000 of their like-minded peers.

The so-called independence that middle schools offer? He calls it neglect.

"Just when kids reach the age when they need the most supervision, that's when they say, 'You're free!'"

Vallas of the Philadelphia schools agrees. Sending students from a small neighborhood school where they may be one of 60 in a class to a school of 1,000 or more can be traumatic at that age.

"It's a time when they need more stability, rather than less," Vallas said.

Academics say that eliminating the transition from middle to high school may have a positive effect on test scores.

A 2002 study in Philadelphia showed that high-poverty K-8 schools generally posted higher scores than high-poverty middle schools.

"There is also a vast body of research that supports middle schools," said Karen Frisson, a West Contra Costa regional superintendent who previously worked at a K-8 school in Minnesota.

"I hate to say it, but the research is inconclusive."
School districts in these cities, among others, are converting their elementary schools to offer kindergarten-through-eighth-grade instruction: Baltimore; Bakersfield; Cincinnati; Cleveland; Detroit; Milwaukee; Minneapolis; Oklahoma City; Philadelphia.

I'm not so sure that closing the middle schools is the way to go. On the other hand, there seems to be some research that supports the two-school model.

All politics aside, I believe that the sole determining factor over whether middle schools stay or go should be: Is this move in the best interest of the kids?

A cynic might argue that the closing a district's middle schools is a maneuver designed to reduce a school district's exposure to sanctions under the No Child Left Behind Act. This line of thinking asserts that the number of schools in a given district that are subject to NCLB benchmarks can be reduced through reconfiguration from a three-school structuring to the more traditional elementary/high school model.

By doing this, the historically low test scores of middle school populations can be diffused by mixing them in with the historically higher scores of primary and senior high school students.

In most districts, it's the middle and junior high schools which have the lowest test scores. By closing these schools and incorporating their student populations in the elementaries and high schools, districts will appear to be doing a better job in that they will have fewer, (if any) underperforming schools.

In other words, the argument goes, this reconfiguration is little more than a "shell game" designed to cope with federal NCLB mandates.

Time will tell.
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