A focus on needs of school 'tweens

As classes begin today, educators turn to middle school, the often forgotten grades

August 28, 2006|By Gina Davis and Liz F. Kay | Gina Davis and Liz F. Kay,SUN REPORTERS

At Woodlawn Middle School, the computer touch-screens in the science labs will be nearly half the size of a chalkboard. Math will occupy twice as much class time for some pupils, who might also find themselves doubling up on reading and staying after school for more tutoring.

And every teacher will be rated "highly qualified," thanks to a schoolwide overhaul that forced last year's instructors to reapply for their jobs.

The sweeping changes at the Baltimore County school reflect a growing movement among school systems across the country, which have long sought to boost elementary and high school performance and are now turning their attention to the youngsters in between.

"Often, the middle grades have been the forgotten ones of education," said Gene Bottoms, senior vice president of the Southern Regional Education Board, which oversees the Making Middle Grades Work initiative being used in 21 states, including Maryland.

"There's an awakening nationally about the need to reform the middle grades and accelerate the rigor to get students ready for high school," he said.

That is true for Maryland, where many of the 870,000 students are scheduled to return to class today. Most of the state's school districts are well on the way to meeting a deadline to provide all-day kindergarten by the next school year, and test results released last week showed significant progress among high school students.

But middle-schoolers' performance on standardized tests has lagged behind their younger and older counterparts. A third of Maryland's middle schools are on a list of troubled institutions.

"We're all disappointed in what's happened in middle schools," said state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick.

Educators point to a number of factors - including the onset of puberty and the seismic social pressures and emotional changes that occur between the ages of 10 and 15 - that complicate the middle school years.

Stacey Rather, who has taught social studies for five years at Woodlawn Middle, said some of her students are still playing with Barbie dolls while others are already going to dance parties.

"You have the range of the strange," Rather said.

To boost the academic performance of these students, Maryland has appointed a task force to recommend middle school reforms and has begun training teachers and administrators for those grades. It plans to create a separate certification for middle-school teachers, who currently are certified along with secondary school teachers.

State officials will also look at the potential benefits of combining elementary and middle schools. In the city, there is already a move to do precisely that - doing away with middle school altogether, in favor of kindergarten-through-eighth-grade institutions.

As part of a school closure and restructuring process, the city school system plans to eliminate many middle schools and downsize the rest. School system officials say pupils in sixth through eighth grades in the city's combined elementary/middle schools score higher on state tests than their counterparts in regular middle schools.

Other districts are trying different approaches. Carroll County school officials launched a new summer program for some pupils entering middle school, and panels there and in Baltimore County have recommended more demanding courses. Howard County is offering tutoring for middle school pupils, and Anne Arundel County will expand the rigorous International Baccalaureate program to three middle schools.

This week, Anne Arundel's new school superintendent, Kevin M. Maxwell, will visit Marley Middle School, which is moving to a new building. It is also one of five middle schools in the county, and 177 in the state, that failed to make sufficient progress on state standardized tests for at least two consecutive years.

School officials said they also will evaluate the middle school schedule to consider a return to a day with more, shorter class periods, and review the curriculum.

"It will be a yearlong look at the middle schools," Maxwell said.

In Howard County, middle school administrators are offering after-school tutoring and other assistance for lower-performing pupils, said Terry Alban, the system's director of student assessment and program evaluation.

This summer, nearly 30 rising Carroll County sixth-graders got a taste of their future through Jumpstart, a monthlong program at Taneytown's Northwest Middle. Middle school teachers taught math, reading, science and social studies to small groups.

The purpose was to ease their transition to middle school, said Lorraine Fulton, assistant superintendent of instruction.

"There are a lot of issues - social, academic - going on with the child," Fulton said. "It happens at every grade, but middle-schoolers are particularly vulnerable."

Grasmick said that middle schools were established with an inordinate focus on the emotional aspects of children's development.

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