The thought of sending a child to middle school can strike fear into the hearts of some parents. The idea of their 12-year-old coping with a huge new building, changing classes and teachers, and bumping into those big eighth-graders can be intimidating.
Some are finding comfort in another model for the middle years: a configuration that allows a student to stay in the same school from kindergarten through eighth grade.
Jane O’Neal, PTA president at Blaine Elementary School, had a choice of four Seattle public elementary schools when her oldest was ready for kindergarten. O’Neal, mother of 7-year-old Reed and 10-year-old Jack, chose Blaine because it was close to home. But there was another reason.
“The fact that it was K through 8 was definitely a plus in my eyes at the time. Looking ahead to having a middle-schooler, I figured it would be a nice option to have,” she said.
Educators agree that the K-8 option can be an attractive one for parents. “When I look at K through 8, I think it offers real personalization and connection with the community,” says Michele Corker Curry, associate academic officer for the Seattle School District. “Some parents may feel they get more personalization than you do with a 6 through 8 with 900 kids.”
Clara Scott, principal at Seattle’s TOPS Alternative School, says the school has wait lists for every grade. Parents like the K-8 configuration, she says. “Parents worry about that stage of their kid’s life. They wonder if they would be able to function better in a smaller environment,” she says.
Some say parents like the K-8 choice more than their children do. Fifth-graders may think they’re ready for the challenges a big middle school can bring.
“Whether the kids would choose it or not, there’s got to be a value in staying in this really tight community with people who know them,” O’Neal says. “At a time when a lot is going on in their lives, they’re in a safe place.”
Scott says TOPS staff places a major emphasis on the social and emotional development of the students. “If bullying is a problem, we address the issue,” she says. “We know that bully is going to be with us for nine years. He’s not going to leave us after fifth grade.”
While the smaller school environment may offer security, some parents may cringe at the thought of their kindergartner waiting for the bus with a group of boisterous eighth-graders.
At TOPS, Scott says, they try to use the age range to their advantage. Each kindergartner is paired with a fifth-grade buddy and many middle-schoolers are teachers’ assistants in the elementary school classrooms. However, middle-schoolers don’t share hallways with elementary school children, she says.
Academically, the K-8 model allows for a smooth transition into middle school. At TOPS, Scott says, curriculum in basic skills, such as math, science, writing and reading, are aligned from grade to grade. “You can plan for them,” she says. “The fifth-grade teacher knows exactly what’s expected when the kids move upstairs to the sixth grade.”
TOPS students also experience a smooth transition into high school, she says, largely because of the personalized education they get at TOPS. Not only are they academically prepared, “they have a better sense of themselves, of who they are, what their strengths and what their challenges are,” she says. “They transition well.”
Consider the child’s needs
Educators say parents need to carefully consider their children’s needs at this challenging age. Some may be more than ready for a large, traditional 6-through-8 middle school.
“There are certain children who need a larger stage — a larger music program, sports programs, more high-level math offerings,” says Ruth Medsker, middle school and K-8 director for Seattle Public Schools. Seattle offers several K-8 choices as well as traditional middle schools.
“We try to provide a thoughtful blend,” she says. “We just don’t believe one size fits all for the families or for the students.”
In the Kent School District, educators looked at demographics and the growing population of their seventh- through ninth-grade middle schools and made the decision to go to a seventh- through eighth-grade model four years ago, according to Janis Bechtel, executive director, K-8, learning and school improvement. The district also looked at research on the needs of early adolescent students.
“I truly believe you need educators who understand the developmental needs of the students with whom they work and a rigorous curriculum and expectations for students that age,” she says. “If you have those two things, it makes no difference where the child is placed.”
That idea is echoed by the Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory (NWREL), a 40-year-old private, nonprofit organization that provides research-based products, technical assistance and training to improve educational systems and learning.
More than 10 years ago, the group concluded, “Little evidence existed to determine a cause-and-effect relationship between grade configuration and academic achievement.” In an article in the Spring 2006 volume of Northwest Education, the group’s publication, it stated that not much has changed. There is still no clear evidence that middle school grade configuration affects students’ academic achievement.
Bechtel emphasizes that middle schools are not “muddle schools;” they can be much more than placeholders between elementary and high school.
Dion Yahoudy, Bellevue School District administrator, agrees. “Historically, middle school was considered ‘in between.’ It was a holding place,” she says. “Educators have done a lot of work making middle school a place where kids grow into themselves intellectually and socially.”
Elaine Bowers lives in Seattle with her husband and twin teenage daughters.