Perhaps middle school is the problem.
A recently released Harvard University study that tracked Florida students from the middle grades through 10th grade showed that pupils who went to a traditional middle school – a sixth- through eighth-grade configuration – fared worse academically than their peers who attended schools that are kindergarten through eighth grade.
A quick glance at Richmond County test data from 2007 through 2010 would seem to bear that out, because C.T. Walker Traditional Magnet and Freedom Park, both of which are K-8 schools, outperformed most of the district’s middle schools, while W.S. Hornsby K-8 School fared worse.
But Walker is a magnet school, attracting the most academically motivated pupils, and Freedom Park has some advantages – close-knit community, a more active and available set of parents – that come with being on a military post.
Pupils and teachers attending both kinds of schools said they like where they are.
Lauren Silvis, 13, transferred to Freedom Park at the beginning of the school year. An eighth-grader, Lauren previously attended a traditional middle school. Based on her experience, she said that if she could choose, she would pick the K-8 setting for the middle grades.
“In a six-to-eight middle school, you either want to be like the eighth-graders or the sixth-graders,” she said. “You always want to be like someone else who is higher or better. K-8 shows you are all treated the same way. You can be yourself, you don’t have to pretend.”
It’s an issue the Richmond County school system has looked at for more than 30 years, said Virginia Bradshaw, the district’s executive director of middle schools.
She explained that under Superintendent Dana Bedden, East Augusta Middle School merged with Hornsby Elementary to create Hornsby K-8, and Collins and Freedom Park elementary schools both added grades six through eight.
“For each of these schools, the emphasis was on serving the unique needs of each community,” Bradshaw said in an e-mail, later adding, “The current emphasis in Richmond County is on strengthening the middle school programs rather than creating more K-8 schools.”
Perhaps the biggest disadvantage of a traditional middle school, researchers say, is that sixth-graders are the youngest pupils in the building. They go through a lot of changes because of puberty. The subjects they study are significantly more difficult than in elementary school, and they change classes much more often.
The Harvard study found that pupils who had gone from a K-5 elementary school to a traditional middle school suffered a bigger drop in their test scores than those who stayed in a K-8 school. Furthermore, the traditional middle school pupils never recovered from that setback in their achievement – even through 10th grade, and these pupils were more likely to drop out than their K-8 peers, the study says.
“Sixth-grade is a challenge because of that transition from elementary to middle school,” said Larina Thomas, the principal of Hephzibah Middle School. “Once they start at our school, they have to adjust to new rules, a new campus, the rituals and routines.”
To help ease what can be an awkward transition, the Richmond County school system started a summer academy last year for rising sixth-graders.
It is designed to bring these pupils into middle school a couple of weeks before classes start so they can see the building for themselves and meet their teachers.
Thomas said Hephzibah Middle’s version, called “Stepping into Rebel Nation,” accomplished its purpose, though she conceded she would have liked to see better attendance.
Another program at the school is Teachers as Advisors. Also in its first year, the program gives every teacher a small group of pupils to mentor. Once a month, the teachers meet with their pupils and listen to their fears, concerns and other comments.
The teachers give advice or use what pupils say to, perhaps, give feedback to other teachers in the school about why a pupil struggles with a certain concept.
“I’m nobody’s math expert,” said Bill Streetman, a sixth-grade social studies teacher at Hephzibah Middle. “But it gives an opportunity to say to the math teacher, ‘There’s something this child is struggling with.’ So why not pull Ms. So-and-So aside and ask her?”
Ronald Drayton, the parent of a sixth-grader at Hephzibah, had high praise for the teachers, especially their willingness to listen to the pupils.
“The pupils have a little voice, and they’ve got someone to listen to them,” Drayton said. “In fifth and fourth grade, you do what the teachers say. Here, they let them voice their opinion.”
Bradshaw said Hephzibah has proved itself to be a model in implementing the mentoring program.
“Hephzibah Middle is to be commended for their implementation of a very successful Advisor/Advisee program which provides time each week for a small group of students to meet with an advisor to discuss issues of importance to them,” she said. “We look forward to having the Hephzibah staff share their particular program with other administrators and counselors.”
Pupils say the school does a good job of helping them make the step from elementary to middle school.
“It was very different, a big step from elementary school,” said Marquashia Burch, 12, a seventh-grader, recalling her transition from fifth grade at Blythe Elementary to sixth grade at Hephzibah Middle. “It was like there is more responsibility in middle school. … The teachers helped a lot, to get the kids to work together – and help each other.”
Freedom Park School might be a curve-breaker when it comes to K-8 schools.
It does deal with some forced changes in pupil population when parents are transferred out of Fort Gordon, but Maj. Gen. Alan R. Lynn, the commander, supports the school and encourages the parents stationed on post to be actively involved in their children’s education, Principal Pauline Andrews said.
She said the school’s family atmosphere, in which teachers from kindergarten through eighth grade work with each other, helps. But most important is the school’s focus on data.
That focus is apparent as soon as one walks the halls. Not only are pupils’ essays and other classroom work on display, but teachers keep color-coded charts that quickly show which pupils are excelling and which are struggling.
Efforts like this are what helped Freedom Park get recognition from Pearson/America’s Choice as a National Model School earlier this month.
“We analyze our data on the level of each child’s performance,” Andrews said. “We go back as part of the process and target those areas where the children may not be on level. We feel that is a strength: tailoring instruction to pinpoint each child’s needs.”
Freedom Park has used the Pearson America’s Choice School Design model for the past four years – as long as Danielle Gonzalez, a sixth-grade English/language arts teacher, has been a teacher there.
“In my four years, I’ve seen it change drastically with America’s Choice,” she said. “Pearson/America’s Choice made the teachers more aware of student effectiveness in the classroom. You become aware of, ‘How did I do it?’ and more aware of the results.”
Richmond County school system leaders think so highly of Pearson/America’s Choice, they are encouraging other schools to adopt it.
“Murphey Middle Charter School and Glenn Hills Middle School are in their second year of implementing the full America’s Choice/Pearson School Improvement design,” Bradshaw said. “Murphey feeds to Josey High School and Glenn Hills Middle feeds Glenn Hills High. Both Josey and Glenn Hills have included components of the America’s Choice design in their reform efforts.
“We believe this continuity will have very positive effects on student achievement.”
At Freedom Park, the middle school pupils are aware that the elementary pupils are watching and looking up to them. That includes Deja Micou, 11, a sixth-grader who has been at the school since fourth grade.
“It makes me feel smarter,” being in the middle school grades. “I know more than I did last year and will learn more things. I will get to do different things than the elementary school.”
Even though Lauren Silvis just came to Freedom Park this year, the eighth-grader managed to win an election as student body president. That makes her even more aware of how she carries herself.
“I try to be on my best behavior,” she said. “When we walk through the halls, we have to be really good role models for the little kids.”
While K-8 schools do have the obvious advantage of elementary- and middle-grade teachers being in the same building, Hephzibah Middle educators say they compensate by reaching out to nearby Hephzibah Elementary and Hephzibah High schools.
Ultimately, it comes down to the teachers, no matter the configuration of the school, said Karen Mack, a sixth-grade English/language arts teacher at Hephzibah Middle.
“The teachers play a role in sixth grade. I love sixth grade,” she said. “I think my students would do well in a K-8 or 6-8. It depends on how you relate with your students, your teaching model.”
Hephzibah pupils expressed relief that they are not in the same building as much younger children.
“In K-8, the eighth-graders could pick on the kindergartners,” said Tayziir Ward, 12, a sixth-grader. “(Middle school) makes me feel more mature.”
“It would be hard with all the little kids and the big kids together,” said Alexis Hickory, 12, a sixth-grader. “It would get confusing.”
But that’s not how it plays out at Freedom Park, said Andrews, the principal.
“I encourage the middle school. I tell them they are my seniors,” she said. “I think they take that to heart and feel a sense of responsibility.”
Richmond County won’t make that decision – K-8 or middle school – any time soon.
“There are no current plans to make organizational changes in grade structures of Richmond County schools,” Bradshaw said. “Our efforts are focused on improving the delivery of instruction that will cause all students to learn content at deep levels and be able to apply that new content to new and unfamiliar tasks.
“Our schools must be models of collaboration and problem solving in order for students to be prepared and have choices about their future paths.”