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The Middle School: Philosophical Concept as Practical Solution

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School officials in Columbus, Ohio, last year abolished the city's 26 junior high schools and replaced them with middle schools.

The move actually began nine years ago with a review of instructional materials, said James Furguson, executive director of middle schools. But what translated discussion and theory into action was the fact that enrollment in the Columbus system had dropped from 100,000 in 1971 to 73,000 last year.

The situation is one facing school boards and administrators in districts across the country. And, forced to consider reorganizing their systems in the wake of declining enrollments and desegregation orders, they are pragmatically turning to a concept that education theorists have long admired--the middle school.

Officials hardpressed to find ways to save money without closing high schools--a solution that typically provokes community outrage--are moving ninth-graders from junior highs back into senior highs and rearranging the kindergarten-through-eighth-grade level of the system into elementary and middle schools.

Many who have argued for such an arrangment on educational grounds publicly lament the notion of the middle school as an expedient in straitened times.

But most proponents also admit they are delighted by the growing attention middle schools are receiving, and they acknowledge they now have an opportunity to participate in the realization of the concept on a scale unequalled in the 20 years since the first "middle-school" experiments were tried.

Achieving Prominence

That middle schools, which by most estimates have more than doubled in number in the last four years, are achieving a new prominence in education circles is suggested by these developments in recent weeks:

The National Association of Secondary School Principals (nassp) released preliminary results of a major national study of middle-level schools. Fuller details of the study will be available late this fall, according to the association, and data pertaining to middle-school principals will be released next spring.

Some 1,200 members of the National Association of Middle Schools--principals, teachers, parents, administrators--held their annual meeting in Miami Beach. One concern of the association, said Harold Gaddis, executive director, is how to respond to the growing number of queries from school boards about how to establish effective middle-school environments.

Commonly Asked Questions

"Communicator," the newsletter of the National Association of Elementary School Principals, has published "A Middle School Primer" containing commonly asked questions, with answers, about such schools. Prepared by the organization's Committee on the Concerns of Middle School Principals, it is designed, according to the newsletter, "to help build an understanding of the promise the middle school holds for the young adolescent. Principals," the publication continues, "are urged to duplicate this primer for distribution to interested individuals and groups."

The Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development held an institute in Dallas "for educators designing and redesigning education programs for the middle grades." It was aimed, according to the association, at "educators whose schools have already converted to middle-school format and those in the process."

nassp also announced the formation of a new Council on Middle Level Education, "the only such council in the country," according to nassp's deputy executive director, George Melton. Chaired by Conrad Toepfer, professor of education at the State University of New York at Buffalo, the group will develop training programs, applications of middle-school research, and models of effective middle-school education programs.

As recently as 15 years ago, there were only about 500 middle schools in the U.S., most of them in suburban and county systems. Most post-War urban systems used a mixture of elementary schools, junior highs, and senior highs, with some systems also maintaining a kindergarten-to-eighth grade, ninth-to-12th grade arrangement.

Today, the number of middle schools has swelled to an estimated 8,000, and they are popping up in such major metropolitan systems as St. Louis, Philadelphia, Portland, Indianapolis, Louisville, and Atlanta. Next year, Denver is expected to join the ranks of those converting to middle schools.

The middle school's most obvious feature is a restructured grade organization, which combines one or more of the upper elementary grades with the two lower secondary grades and places the ninth grade back in the high school. Although most middle schools involve grades six through eight, some districts have adopted a five-through-eight pattern, and a small number have experimented with a four-through-eight structure.

But while school boards are clearly attracted to middle schools as a way of keeping high schools open and closing underused elementary schools, proponents of middle schools forcefully argue that expediency is by no means the strongest rationale for the shift.

The most important educational aspect of the middle-schools concept, they assert, grows out of new understandings about the development of early adolescents and its effect on teaching and learning.

According to middle-school experts, students simply are growing up faster than they used to. And there is mounting evidence, they say, that the traditional six-three-three grade pattern no longer parallels the development of today's schoolchildren.

(According to a survey by the National Institute of Education, 33 percent of the estimated 12,000 "middle-level" schools are junior high schools. The rest are various forms of middle school. However, 72 percent of the middle-level principals--including junior-high principals--surveyed by the secondary-schools principals association, said they believed some form of middle-school grade structure was "ideal." First choice of 54 percent of the principals was a grade-six-through-eight structure.)

A team of researchers studying records dating back to the middle of the 19th century recently reported the finding that young adolescents have been physically maturing four months earlier with each passing decade.

The indication, thus, is that the physical maturation of the contemporary fourth grader is closing in on the maturation of the seventh grader for whom the junior high school was established in the early 1900's.

Moreover, better nutrition and medical care, a fast-paced lifestyle, and the advent of electronic communication have all pushed up the pace of students' psychological development. As one Connecticut high-school teacher reportedly put it: "If Booth Tarkington were to write Seventeen today, he would have to call it Twelve."

Other studies point to the fact that the developmental level of today's fifth and sixth graders more closely resembles that of seventh and eighth graders than it does that of their younger elementary schoolmates. And ninth graders have more in common with older students than with younger ones.

Especially significant, say middle-school proponents, is recent research by Herman Epstein of Brandeis University and Mr. Toepfer of the State University of New York, which indicates that up to 85 percent of 12-to-14-year-olds experience a period of slow brain growth as they reach puberty.

"The prediction here would be," they wrote, "that it is relatively more difficult to initiate intellectual processes in the middle grades than in periods both preceding and following this period." Therefore, the researchers said, middle-school instruction "should be characterized far more by maturation in already initiated and learned cognitive skills than in the acquisition of new skills."

Those findings merely confirm, the proponents say, what teachers have observed for years about the special characteristics of the early-adolescent age group.

And although junior high schools, at least in their early history, were intended to accommodate those characteristics, the junior highs later "became smaller versions of high schools," comments Donald Eichorn, superintendent of schools in Lewisburg, Pa., and a longtime advocate of middle schools. "Their chief concern is to teach subjects--with little regard for students' growth characteristics."

For example, Mr. Eichorn says, "Junior high-school instruction is lecture-oriented. But the long lecture doesn't work with students whose attention spans are short and who are often fantasizing and daydreaming. Those are just characteristics of the age."

In addition, junior high schools have been criticized for taking on such high-school characteristics as departmentalization, interscholastic sports, marching bands, and even elaborate graduation exercises. "Had the junior high school done what it was supposed to do," Mr. Eichorn asserts, "there would be no middle school."

The effective middle school operates somewhere in between the style of the self-contained elementary3school and the departmentalized high school.

In a typical Columbus, Ohio, middle school, for example, sixth graders start out in one classroom with a single teacher, have some specialization in the seventh grade, and move on to more departmentalized instruction in the eighth grade. "It's a transitional move for youngsters that takes them from dependence on one teacher to interaction with several teachers gradually," says the system's Mr. Furguson.

Like junior high schools, middle schools offer mathematics, language arts, social studies, science, art, music, health, home economics, and practical arts. But teaching styles are quite different.

Middle schools, say enthusiasts, have been the testing ground for many of the education innovations of the past two decades. Team teaching, individualized instructional packets, flexible scheduling, various exploratory programs and mini-courses, and both group-counseling and advisee-adviser guidance programs were all pioneered there, they say.

Despite the progressive sound of such experiments, however, proponents like Charles Granger, principal of the Drexel Hill Middle School in Upper Darby, Pa., argue that "the middle-school concept is very much attuned to the push back to basics."

Basic instruction at his district's middle schools, for example, is organized around a team of four teachers for every 100 students--in math, language arts, social studies, and science. All, according to Mr. Granger, teach reading.

Handsome is as handsome does in the case of middle schools, and not all those schools that bear the name do anything to differentiate themselves from traditional junior high schools. On the other hand, according to Mr. Gaddis of the National Middle Schools Association, "The middle-school concept is also very strong in some junior high schools."

Some kindergarten-to-eighth-grade schools also have successfully grafted a middle-school orientation onto their existing structure. The Haight School in Alameda, Calif., for instance, has adopted a school-within-a-school for its sixth-through-eighth graders. The upper floor of the two-story building is reserved for grades one through five, while the middle-school students share the ground floor with kindergartners. Each group has its own entrances and recreational areas.

To date, Columbus remains theel10llargest single school system to abandon all at once the junior-high-school organization in favor of middle schools. Most large districts--Dallas, Atlanta, Detroit, and Miami, among them--hang on to their old grade pattern in some schools, while experimenting with middle-school organization in others.

"We won't establish a middle school without parent and citizen support," comments Portland's deputy superintendent, Clint Thomas.

By contrast, smaller school systems, in which the administrative mechanics of reorganization present fewer problems, tend to jump right in.

In Upper Darby, two middle schools emerged from a district reorganization that closed three of 10 elementary schools. The feeling among administrators, says Deputy Superintendent Patricia Ramsdell, was: "If we're going to reorganize,3we're going to do it all."

In addition to helping school districts cope with fewer students, middle schools have been established as a compromise in urban desegregation; such models exist in New Haven, Philadelphia, and Portland.

In the latter city, students in the predominantly black north end attend neighborhood elementary schools and then move on to middle schools with expanded, racially balanced attendance zones. Portland's magnet middle school draws students from throughout the city to a specialized computer-assisted basic education program.

The growing state interest in certification of middle-school teachers is another measure of the rise of the middle-school concept. In 1968, only Nebraska and Kentucky had official middle-school certification requirements. Today, 16 states have such requirements, and they are being planned in 13 others.

Kentucky still holds a distinction, however. It is the only state thus far to require certification for middle-school administrators as well.

Even in those states imposing certification requirements, however, teachers with elementary-level certification are usually permitted to teach grades five and six in middle schools. And certified secondary-level teachers may teach their subject in grades seven and eight.

It is difficult to find critics of middle schools these days, much to the pleasure of their supporters. What skepticism is heard focuses on the question of whether middle schools really deliver what they promise, rather than on the philosophy that undergirds them.

Only one major school system--that of Providence, R.I.--has considered dropping its middle-school grade pattern, according to association officials. Former Superintendent of Schools Jerome Jones--citing parent protests over the transfer of students to a new school after the fourth grade, declining test scores, and increasing violence and vandalism--last year announced a reorganization that would have returned the system to a K-8 structure this year.

That plan was shelved, however, after a school system financial study indicated that the shift would cost the district between $31 million and $50 million.

Acting Superintendent of Schools Robert Ricci is not necessarily in favor of the change anyway. "I think our middle schools deserve a better chance," he asserts. "Middle schools have a lot going for them."

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