In the child-free calm of an empty classroom at Golden Ring Middle School, a small group of teachers is hashing out what to do about their most troubled sixth-graders.
The teachers agree that a hyperactive preteen who chatters and squirms her way through every class can't be allowed to distract other students any longer.
"She's not capable of controlling herself," says math teacher Brenda Riggs, who attributes some of the behavior to "big problems" at home. The girl's parents are separated and have had some ugly confrontations in front of her.
But everyone senses there's more to it. After watching her disrupt their classes for six months, the teachers suspect the sixth-grader is emotionally disturbed.
With the approval of the assistant principal, Thor Ramsland, the group orders a pediatric evaluation to try to learn the cause of the girl's behavior. Then they turn their attention to the next name on their list -- a boy who has already missed 30 days of school.
Discussions like these are routine for Mrs. Riggs, Mary Louise Kleman, Deanne Panighetti, Betty Jean Rounsaville and Jackie Nesbitt, who meet twice a week at this northeastern Baltimore County school and spend countless hours on the phone with each other at night.
Although they teach different subjects, their classes are made up of the same 135 students, who are divided into five sections according to ability and move from teacher to teacher. Together, the teachers work as a team to educate, discipline and mother the 11- and 12-year-olds assigned to them.
"It takes a tremendous amount of time," says Mrs. Kleman, a science teacher and the leader of team 6A. "But we don't have problems with [most of] our kids, and that's because we're on top of them."
Team teaching isn't unique to Golden Ring. Middle schools across the country are trying the technique to ease the transition from a sheltered elementary classroom to the impersonal sprawl of high school.
In Maryland, three-quarters of the state's middle schools use some form of team teaching, estimates Eileen Oickle, a specialist in middle and high school learning for the Maryland Department of Education.
Although little research has been done on the effectiveness of teams, educators believe they create a more nurturing, structured environment for children in the throes of puberty.
"It's really wonderful for kids to have that environment," Ms. Oickle says. "They're not just lost in the shuffle."
Students who don't get the help they need in middle school often wind up on the fast track to failure in high school, barely graduating or dropping out. "Some people refer to middle schools as the last great chance" to make a difference in children's lives, Ms. Oickle says.
Grabbing that chance is important at a school like Golden Ring.
Housed in the old Kenwood High School building, Golden Ring draws its 770 students from established blue-collar neighborhoods like Rosedale and more transient, federally subsidized developments like Fontana Village.
About one-third of the children are poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price school lunches. The vast majority of students come from homes where both parents work or only one parent is present.
Team 6A gives its students the kind of close supervision families and neighborhoods used to provide.
"Those poor babies don't know what hit them," says social studies teacher Mrs. Rounsaville, a large, good-natured woman who radiates maternal warmth. "We've got them coming, and we've got them going."
Even the cleverest sixth-graders find they can't get away with much. News of children missing classes, skipping homework, chomping gum, fighting in the lunchroom or committing other transgressions is passed among the teachers with alarming speed. Punishment is swift.
Zack Kraft, a chunky, blond boy with an endearing grin, knows his teachers will start bugging him to turn in his homework if he forgets to do it too often. And if he doesn't improve, they call his dad.
"I can get in serious trouble," the 12-year-old reports.
The team also rewards the students who behave and work hard in class. Sixth-graders who pass every major subject and get good marks for behavior make the SWAT (Students Who Are Terrific) team and go on special field trips.
Occasionally, two or three teachers will plan lessons together to show students the natural connections between different subjects. A unit on mythology in English may be accompanied by a discussion of the planets in science and a lesson on plotting distances in math.
In theory, interdisciplinary units are one of the main academic advantages of team teaching. But the Golden Ring teachers have little time to coordinate their curriculums. Instead, they concentrate their efforts on keeping their students on track.
The five women bring distinct backgrounds and perspectives to the team.