Movement on middle schools

May 08, 2006

Baltimore school officials are struggling to fix middle schools, where students throughout the state and, indeed, the nation often stumble. A comprehensive reform plan is promised soon, but in the interim, officials have announced a credible start, focusing not only on children's academic progress but also on their social and emotional needs.

Despite reform efforts that are making a difference in elementary and high schools, middle schools have been like neglected stepchildren - underscored by poor academic results. State assessments show that less than half of the city's middle school students are proficient in reading and less than 25 percent of seventh- and eighth-graders are proficient in math. And seven city middle schools were on the State Department of Education's overhaul list.

City school officials believe that fewer transitions to different levels of schooling are less disorienting. They also recognize that middle school students, who are dealing with more-challenging subjects as well as preadolescent angst, need more supports. For starters, top school administrators want to convert 18 of the system's 23 traditional middle schools to K-8 schools, which generally have had better test results. Even with more grades, officials are aiming to keep the K-8 schools relatively small and neighborhood-oriented.

As was signaled in the recently passed budget for next year, officials also plan to reduce the size of reading and math classes in grades 6 to 8 and provide all middle schools with more academic coaches in reading, math, science and social studies. In addition, students will have access to more social workers and guidance counselors, be provided with free breakfasts and given more opportunities to participate in debates, athletics and student government.

About $21 million is being earmarked for this effort, and school officials insist that there will be more to come, as they consult with parents and community residents, national experts and the handful of local middle schools that have been more successful. It's about time that school officials started pushing middle school reform more aggressively, even if all the solutions are not clear. For students, action can't come soon enough.

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