In the middle

July 23, 2002

BALTIMORE CITY elementary schools are undergoing a reading revolution. The high schools are poised for changes underwritten by private grants. Where does that leave the middle schools?

In a report released last week, Advocates for Children and Youth (ACY) said they are "Stuck in the Middle" while the school system's own recommendations for improvement remain largely unimplemented. City schools chief Carmen Russo responds that the middle schools are just "at the beginning of aggressive reforms."

In other words, a great deal remains to done to systematically change the quality of management, teaching and results in the pivotal middle grades. The state school board should aid this process by asking the hard questions today, as it reviews the city schools' master plan:

What will it take to pare down the oversized middle schools, a stated goal of the city system? Although there's not a lot of scientific evidence to back it up, many Baltimore parents believe learning improves when students stay in the bosom of their communities, where families can build long-term relationships with teachers.

A study by the school system in 2001 confirmed that students in the K-8 schools were earning higher test scores, gaining acceptance to better high schools and staying in school longer than other middle-schoolers. The reason may be, in part, that in the K-8 schools classes tend to be smaller.

So in September, Ms. Russo says, 10 schools will add a sixth or seventh grade, in a campaign to convert grade schools into elementary-middles. But some large middle schools will remain, and efforts to create themed academies in them are incomplete.

How will the school system ensure that smaller also means smarter? Its own study warns that schools configured as K-8s were not teaching the classes that are nationally recognized as fundamentals for college preparation: algebra and foreign language. While it's true that much focus must be put at this stage on remedial work, ACY also points out correctly that more must be done for the students who are capable of excelling. New gifted-and-talented programs will be introduced this fall, but how about ensuring that the college-bound basics are taught citywide?

What more can be done to ensure every middle school a strong principal delivering rigorous programs tuned to the state's learning standards? ACY reports, for example, that too many middle schools still are doing their own thing in reading instruction instead of following consistently successful programs. How much better would test scores be if everyone were on the same page (literally), working with teachers steeped in a citywide curriculum?

The city schools' proposed master plan is as thick as a phone book, full of goals that need exploration and demand follow-through. The plan is supposed to outline how the district will spend its budget -- including an estimated $18.7 million arriving this fall and $353 million overall expected by 2008 in new Thornton Commission funds.

Before approving the city's plan, the state board must ask what, and how much, and by what timeline Baltimore will invest in the schools "stuck in the middle." Until this can be articulated, the plan is incomplete.

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