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What's next for middle schools?

Published on: November 01, 2005

Middle school. These two words strike fear into the hearts of many parents worried about sending their hormonally challenged children on the roller-coaster ride of young adolescence in a school setting.

When children start middle school, it uproots them from a familiar environment where teachers know them and behavioral expectations have been established layer by layer during the formative early school years. Are middle schools, as critics in a recent study labeled them, "the Bermuda triangle of public education"?

In general, experts agree that young teens still suffer from a condition defined in Stanley Hall's 1905 book, Adolesence, as "mental ennui and dyspepsia." Over a century later, a comprehensive 2004 Rand Corporation report expands on this, stating that "the onset of puberty is an especially poor reason for beginning a new phase of schooling, insomuch as multiple simultaneous changes...are stressful for young adolescents and sometimes have long-lasting negative effects."

Prompted by Rand's assessment, Focus on the Wonder Years: Challenges Facing the American Middle School, educators across the country -- including those in the greater Seattle area -- are reassessing the concept of middle school (generally grades 6-8 or 7-8) or junior high (grades 7-9) programs put in place since the 1950s.

So, how did middle schools become such an essential part of American educational structure? According to Focus on the Wonder Years, the first grade 7-9 junior high schools, appearing in urban areas in 1910, were aimed at "Americanizing" young immigrants, helping them to assimilate culturally and become good citizens. During the next 50 years, the junior high school concept became widely adopted throughout the U.S.

But as the Baby Boom population bulge began to work its way through the educational system in the 1950s, elementary school populations swelled accordingly. An increasing societal emphasis on early childhood education programs also boosted the number of tiny bodies crowding into elementary schools. As a result, seventh and eighth grades, and sometimes even sixth grade, were skimmed off into their own facilities in order to create space in elementary schools.

By 1986, there were 4,329 grade 6-8 middle schools nationwide, up from 1,662 in 1970. Grades 7-8-only middle schools, on the other hand, decreased from 4,711 to 2,191 nationwide during the same time period.

One of Rand's findings, based on a number of studies, was that segregating young teens into separate middle schools might be detrimental. Those 11- through 14-year-olds may be better served, Rand concluded, by an integrated K-8 or even K-12 experience that allows them to remain in a familiar environment, expected to conform to the demands of community that knows them.

Diane Carlson Jones, Ph.D., an associate professor of educational psychology at the University of Washington, says it is difficult to quantify the K-8 vs. middle school debate. Finding groups that can be fairly compared is a challenge because many K-8 schools now operating are private or parochial and the enormous middle/junior highs are often public. What is clear, though, is that "in the larger junior high schools the level of anonymity and unfamiliarity is staggering," she says. "We see more struggles to find a place or status in middle schools. What that means for the self has not been well studied."

Asked whether there are positive benefits to forcing young teens to confront these issues and "toughen up," Jones says, "Well, many people think that high school may be a more appropriate time to confront this -- hardening comes soon enough later on." Still, she adds, it is the quality of life within the school and safety systems set in place by teachers and administrators that matter most.

"Small scale is not automatically better," she explains, although a smaller scale might encourage the creation of structures that "impact learning in supportive and positive ways." Jones says that school administrators need to look at the challenges young teens present "not as an irritant, but as a chance to create positive systems for conflict resolution and differing perspectives."

She stresses that K-8 or other smaller schools need to pay special attention to how some students or groups become privileged within the school, creating unequal status. In small schools where young teens have fewer peer choices, kids who find themselves excluded from cliques may have a "difficult and horrendous time," she adds.

A supporter of the K-8 structure is Nancy Wilson, Ph.D., assistant principal of St. Catherine of Siena School, a pre-K-through-8th-grade school in north Seattle and a former public elementary school principal. "To see the developmental changes that occur over the pre-8 span of years, how both the kids and parents blossom within their school community, is amazing," Wilson says. "This model gives us a best shot at helping these kids grow up the way we want them to. The continuity of pre-8 allows young teens the opportunity to be role models to younger kids, including at times their own younger siblings."

In a middle school setting, she adds, "sixth or seventh graders go from being leaders into a situation where they are at the bottom of the pecking order. It is easy for these kids -- even motivated kids -- to get lost." The pre-K- through-grade-8 setting, Wilson says, "allows the young teens to be kids longer" by delaying their exposure to a less-balanced, same-age, peer-driven community.

Keeping young teens within a familiar learning community also means that they are known in a different way than they would be in junior high or middle school, anchoring their transitional years in "the foundation of belonging," she says. In pre-K through 8, parental involvement doesn't fade out as often happens during traditional junior high, and many studies have correlated parental school involvement with student success, Wilson adds.

With the halcyon days of elementary school behind them, many young teenagers struggle to make their way through any school environment. Parents, too, are caught in the middle -- trying to figure out when to nurture their ever-changing young people and when to stand back and let them find their own way.

"Although parental involvement is not necessarily sufficient to bring about academic success, its absence may increase the risk of school difficulties," the Rand report concludes. "Partnerships, defined as shared knowledge and expectations between parents and teachers, should be the ultimate goal for enhancing the school success and well-being of our young teens."

For parents in the middle, the message is clear: Don't drop out of the picture.

Paula Becker is a Seattle freelance writer and mother of three.


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