Small size seen as model for middle school


Report: The latest evaluation of Baltimore middle schools suggests that kids perform better in smaller, more manageable facilities.

July 17, 2002|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

PITY THE POOR middle school.

Sandwiched between elementary and high school, it has major problems that won't go away. State officials wring their hands for a decade while eighth-grade MSPAP scores go nowhere. Baltimore sets out to reform middle schools in 1999; three years later the effort is just gathering steam, in part because middle schools are the poor younger brothers of high schools in commanding attention and resources.

Yet all educators know that the middle school years are crucial. If Baltimore schools chief Carmen V. Russo wants to reform the high schools, she knows she must tackle the middle schools at the same time. If she doesn't, students will continue to arrive at the ninth-grade portal unprepared for high school work. And they'll continue to drop out.

Advocates for Children and Youth (ACY), the estimable group that keeps a close watch on the most vulnerable of Maryland kids, is out with a new report, "Stuck in the Middle," which evaluates middle school reform efforts in Baltimore. A model of brevity, it is nine pages in length and presents only four recommendations. In the universe of education reports, that's a miracle.

The report recommends that middle schools be given high priority in the distribution of precious new state funds from the Thornton legislation. It also calls for improved teacher training and help for children who perform above and below grade level.

But the key recommendation is the second: "Move to smaller schools throughout the system, not only through the K-8 model. Clearly, the mega-middle school model is not working."

It should be added that no mega-school model is working, which is precisely why Russo and her administration are moving to break the city's mammoth high schools into smaller, more manageable units.

At the middle school level, the city in recent years has added sixth, seventh and eighth grades to many neighborhood elementary schools. This scheme means kids will attend only two schools in their careers. It keeps them in the extended elementary school family, where they're known and paid attention until it's time for high school.

What are the academic results? I picked the eighth grade in the 2002 TerraNova testing (formerly CTBS) and looked at the city's reading scores reported last month. The six top-scoring eighth grades, all of which performed at or above the national median, are extensions of neighborhood elementary schools (Roland Park, Woodhome, Hamilton No. 236, Barclay, Violetville and Ashburton).

The five lowest performers - Lombard, Diggs-Johnson, Harlem Park Academy, Calverton and Thurgood Marshall - are traditional, large middle schools with grades 6 through 8.

"I hadn't looked at it, but I knew that would be the case," said Christopher Ndeki Maher, education director of the children's advocacy group. "It's not a matter of K-8 versus 6-8. It's because these schools with middle grades added are so much smaller and personal, and many of them were set up at the request of parents and teachers, who have a stake in their success. There's a buy-in element that's missing in the mega-schools."

Smallness, of course, doesn't guarantee a school's effectiveness. The city has to move on a number of fronts, wisely shepherding the limited resources available.

And the Catholics are entitled to chuckle. They were smart enough never to abandon K-8.

Summer vacation a mixed blessing

What happened to summer?

Only last week, or so it seems, my neighborhood school was letting out for summer vacation. And now, in mid-July, there are the ads for school clothing and supplies. My office e-mail swarms with back-to-school suggestions and entreaties.

A California company says its sandbox sand is nontoxic, guaranteed, and I should pay attention to that, now that school is resuming. Allegheny College in Meadville, Pa., offers parents advice on how to say goodbye to their college-bound freshmen. ("Try not to burden your student with your feelings of loss and sadness.")

My emotions are always mixed. On the one hand, I know that the academic "summer drop-off" is real, particularly in the cities, where children don't get a lot of vacation stimulation, exciting summer camps, vacations and the like. I know that one reason U.S. children are behind their international peers in math and science is that they spend less time in school.

On the other hand, summer vacation in the 21st century seems to come and go like a lightning bug's flash.

Only at Robert W. Coleman Elementary School in West Baltimore is the summer drop-off not a problem. After a brief summer hiatus, the city's only year-round school begins a new term in a couple of weeks.

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