Model middle schools

June 13, 2006

Baltimore's school system is taking some major steps to reform its middle schools, the glaring weak link in overall school improvement plans. There are some strong reform models, particularly among charter schools, but systemwide changes are not happening quickly enough. If achievement gains being made in elementary schools are to be sustained and if more students are to graduate from high schools with the necessary skills to pursue college or work, then middle schools must be tackled with a greater sense of urgency.

One model that would seem to merit wider replication, as documented by The Sun's Liz Bowie, is the four-year-old KIPP Ujima Village Academy in West Baltimore, one of 46 schools around the country that are part of the Knowledge is Power Program. Baltimore's KIPP school serves 275 fifth- through eighth-graders, about one-third the size of Calverton, a traditional West Baltimore public middle school that serves 750 students.

While the KIPP academy raises supplemental private funds, the per pupil allotment and class sizes are about the same as at Calverton and the schools have a similar proportion of poor and minority students. But 23 percent of seventh-graders at Calverton passed the state reading assessment last year, compared with 73.4 percent of KIPP students. Nearly all of those in KIPP's first graduating class are going to academically demanding high schools in the city and nearby.

The key factor in the KIPP academy's success seems to be a culture of discipline and conduct, high expectations and the ability of teachers and staff to work intensely with students who may be having difficulty. For example, KIPP teachers remain accessible by cell phone to help students until 9 or 10 p.m.

In pushing a middle school reform plan, administrators are insisting on leadership and staffing changes at some schools, and they are also combining more middle and elementary schools as K-8 schools. More and smaller K-8 schools should reduce the number of potentially disruptive transitions students have to endure and allow teachers to keep building on first- and second-grade gains in reading and math, as reflected in the Stanford Achievement Test scores announced yesterday.

Next school year's budget aims to provide more academic help and social support for middle grade students. KIPP and other successful models show that an emphasis on small and highly focused schools is critical.

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