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Middle Schools Gain With 'Focus' on Child

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When Terry M. Weeks set out in the mid-1970's to teach his Murfreesboro, Tenn., 7th graders a lesson on the Middle East, the approach he chose was the lecture.

He told his class the story of the Arab-Israeli conflict, the former Teacher of the Year recalls, hoping that they "would imagine it through my words."

But last year when the topic came up, he let students offer their own solutions to the conflict. And when one suggested that the United States find a new homeland for Israelis, that became the inspiration for an exercise in which pupils assumed the roles of politicians, Jews, Arabs--and even American Indians.

That lesson allowed the class to "see the solution through different eyes," Mr. Weeks says, to "play it through" to discover the problem's full complexity.

He attributes the change in approach to his school's transition to the philosophy of what is known as the middle-school movement. It was a shift, he says, that transformed "the heart and soul of what I do."

"Students became my main focus," he explains, "rather than my subject."

The Central Middle School in Murfreesboro is one of a growing number of middle-grade schools that are trying to stretch the meaning of the movement beyond the merely organizational. They are altering the way they present material and schedule classes to foster a more personal and stimulating climate for adolescents.

Stressing "child-centered" teaching, they have abandoned the idea of large "mini high-schools," where pupils are grouped by ability and change classes for every subject.

Their schools favor smaller learning units, interdisciplinary teaching teams, and advising systems that offer students regular access to at least one adult in a support role.

While pockets of schools have been experimenting with these methods since the 1970's, the movement has enjoyed a surge of interest in recent years, as educators have come to view reform in the middle grades as a critical element in dropout prevention.

The demographic trends and enrollment patterns of the last decade have also fueled the interest, as many school systems redeploy their facilities to ease overcrowding in elementary schools or ensure compliance with desegregation orders.

Replacing 7th- to 9th-grade junior highs with 6th- or 7th- to 8th-grade middle schools "has provided a platform to look at a concept of education that has been around for many, many years," says James P. Garvin, president of the National Middle School Association and director of the New England League of Middle Schools.

The concept is that students in the early adolescent years need a separate and distinctive educational experience to ease them through a volatile period of development.

Educators have "taken advantage of the opportunity" inspired by demographic changes, says John H. Lounsbury, editor of the n.m.s.a.'s journal, to test the "vibrancy and the spirit of the middle-school concept." And record numbers, he says, are expressing interest and attending conferences.

But many schools have donned the middle-school label without revamping their teaching strategies, some experts argue.

A number of the early shifts, says Joan Lipsitz, education program director for the Lilly Foundation, involved "nothing more than sandblasting on the junior high school and changing the name to middle school."

Today, she says, "there has been a little bit more than sandblasting in more places than 10 years ago."

But when changes are "driven by the desire to look different, rather than by a deep thoughtfulness about the needs of learners," she adds, "it's just as cosmetic."

"We have won the battle organizationally," says Mr. Lounsbury, "but we're still fighting the battle educationally."

Statistics show that students in the 10- to 14-year-old age range are now being taught in a broad array of settings, including K-8 elementary schools, middle schools serving two to four grades, and high schools.

Data compiled in a series of papers to be released later this month by the Johns Hopkins University Center for Research in Elementary and Middle Schools show that schools serving 7th graders encompass some 30 grade spans.

While K-8 schools are the most numerous in many regions, the largest percentage of 7th graders are in grades 6-8 schools.

According to the draft of an n.m.s.a. study, also scheduled for release later this month, the number of 6-8 schools has increased from 1,662 to 4,329 since 1970--a 160 percent increase.

While schools serving grades 5-8 and 7-8 also increased in number,hools--those traditionally called junior high schools--declined by 53 percent, from 4,711 to 2,191.

In the n.m.s.a. study, the researchers William M. Alexander and C. Kenneth McEwin report that middle schools "have moved well toward their function of providing earlier and more fully a wide range of interest-exploring and interest-developing courses and activities."

Increasing numbers, they say, are using innnovative scheduling, interdisciplinary teaching teams, and teacher-advisory periods. And more are adding courses in health and technology that the researchers say "reflect recent developments in society and education."

But the n.m.s.a. researchers also note that "the use of the traditional secondary school's daily uniform periods seemed as common in 1988 as in 1968," and that the majority of middle-level teachers lack specific preparation for that age group.

They cite, too, a lack of movement toward dividing schools into smaller units and a "lack of appropriate physical-development activities.''

The researchers found that "departmentalized" classes were more common in junior high than in middle schools, and that a greater share of middle-school teachers and principals have been involved in decisions about school structure.

A 1988 study of 672 schools conducted by the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development found that 6-8 schools were "most likely to provide the key characteristics ... advocated as most appropriate to the needs" of 10- to 14-year-olds.

The Johns Hopkins data also show that 6-8 schools used such approaches as interdisciplinary teams and "supportive guidance activities" most frequently.

The 6-8 organization "does seem to encourage teachers, staffs, and principals to consider these structures," says Joyce Epstein, director of middle-school programs at the Johns Hopkins center. But she stresses that schools of all grade spans are sampling such techniques.

"It is what goes on in the school and not the grade configuration that8makes it a middle school," says Jeanette Phillips, principal of the Tenaya Middle School in Fresno, Calif.

While definitive data on the academic benefits of middle schools are lacking, proponents say findings of the effective-schools movement support middle-school principles.

The greatest gains, Mr. Lounsbury contends, may be reflected not in test scores, but in the development of "self-concept, social development, self-esteem, and other aspects of [adolescents'] growth."

When the middle-school movement was launched in the late 1960's, Ms. Epstein notes, it "had the same philosophical intent, ironically, as the junior-high movement 50 years ago."

Its goal, she says, was "to make the middle section of schooling more responsive" to the early adolescent--and to "keep kids from being treated like little high-school students or wasting away in situations that are not responsive to their energy and special situation."

When junior highs "failed to become a distinctive educational approach" and mimicked high schools, Mr. Lounsbury says, educators fashioned a new philosophy aimed at offering a less jarring transition to high school and a "more intimate, caring environment for students."

With children maturing at increasingly earlier ages, some experts felt 6th graders were too mature to be grouped with K-5 pupils--and that 9th graders were too advanced for junior highs.

Although model middle schools began to spring up in the early 1970's, Ms. Epstein notes, "recent demographics have had the biggest impact'' in grade reorganization.

To make room for "baby boomlet" children in the early grades, many districts have moved others in the upper elementary grades into middle schools and 9th graders into high schools.

Some educators have approached middle-school reform "from a developmental perspective," according to the Lilly Foundation's Ms. Lipsitz, but "most of the decisions to switch grades were driven by demographics and court orders."

"So what we had," she says, "was the appearance of change, but no change in structure. The pedagogical techniques were totally indistinguishable from what was going on in the high school."

And while some progress has been made in making middle schools more ''humane," she says, there have been "fewer attempts at curricular and pedagogical change."

"School organization has been more determined by administrative, economic, and demographic factors than philosophical," Mr. Lounsbury agrees. But in the last 15 years, he contends, there has been growing interest in reorganizing schools for educational purposes.

When the Fresno, Calif., schools began converting junior highs to middle schools in the mid-1970's, recalls Ms. Phillips of the Tenaya school, "we were looking for ways we could change in order to combat poor attendance, low test scores, and high rates of vandalism."

Such conversions have paid off, says Superintendent of Public Instruction Bill Honig of California, who issued a 1987 report offering more than 100 recommendations for revamping middle-level education in the state.

"Test scores are sky high," he boasts. "It's a report that works.''

Dade County, Fla., which is in the process of converting 51 schools to middle schools, was also inspired by the movement's focus on "the development of the total child," says Irwin N. Adler, the district's middle-school coordinator.

Overcrowding may prohibit some schools from adopting a 6-8 grade configuration, he says, but not "the program and the philosophy."

The Philadelphia school system, citing data showing that junior highs have not met students' needs, is also completing a project to replace them with middle schools.

And New York City's decentralized school boards are "trying to implement pieces" of a 1988 report by the central board of education promoting 6-8 schools with the key features of middle-school philosophy, according to Norm Fruchter, a board member in the city's District 15.

In some areas, foundations are helping to underwrite such efforts.

The Lilly Endowment, for example, is helping Indiana carry out a three-year, $3.5-million effort to reform middle schools at 16 sites with high concentrations of poor and minority students.

The National Association of State Boards of Education is also helping the Seattle schools set in motion a program to restructure its middle schools under a grant from the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation.

Later this month, the foundation will recommend that its board approve up to $2 million in grants to help other urban school districts "revitalize" programs for disadvantaged adolescents. The five cities being recommended are Baltimore, Louisville, Milwaukee, Oakland, and San Diego.

For a variety of reasons, some urban districts have steered away from middle schools.

Although a school task force in Washington explored the idea more than 15 years ago, says Ernest R. Devoe, assistant superintendent for the District of Columbia's division of junior high schools, "we never really bought into the concept."

The city has retained its 7-9 junior high schools--organized largely like high schools--"for want of knowledge of a better way," he says.

And in Chicago, K-8 schools have remained predominant, according to Joseph W. Lee, deputy superintendent of schools, "because parents want to see their children remain in the same building for all of their elementary-school career."

The city at one time established several "upper-grade centers" for 7th and 8th graders, he says, but "there seems to be a trend to move away from those and have schools go back to K-8."

Some communities have also resisted attempts to move 6th graders to middle schools.

In Houston, school officials began offering parents of 5th graders the choice to remain in K-6 schools just three years after a major reorganization in which most 6th graders were transferred to middle schools.

Because the 6-8 schools retained the same structure as high schools, says Betty Minzenmayer, district assistant superintendent for campus management, "parents were saying children are not ready for the responsibility of changing classes and moving so frequently."

"We were finding that 6th graders in middle schools had almost reached a standstill academically," she adds.

Districts that have made the shift have met with a variety of hurdles.

Although demography and desegregation prompted Seattle to replace half of its junior highs with middle schools in the early 1970's, initial efforts to "change approach drastically" stalled, says John Thorpe, the district's middle-school coordinator, when "funding started to dry out."

And while Florida passed a middle-grades-improvement bill in 1984, Dade County lacked the money to make a wholesale conversion until the legislature approved additional funds for implementation.

The movement also has been slowed by lack of training programs geared for middle-grade teachers.

To work on interdisciplinary teams or serve in advisory capacities, says Susan Rosenzweig, information-services director at the University of North Carolina Center for Early Adolescence, most teachers must be "totally retrained," which many schools cannot afford.

But the outlook is improving, insists Mr. Garvin of the n.m.s.a., who notes that his group and its affiliates have been assisting schools with inservice training. The group has, in addition, recently developed standards for middle-level teacher preparation for the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education.

About 21 states offer middle-level certification for new teaching candidates, and another nine are considering such programs, Mr. Garvin says.

Another major obstacle, according to Mr. Lounsbury, has been "a lack of understanding on the part of the general public concerning the age of early adolescence" and the critical transition period it represents.

In middle school, he says, "you have men, women, and children all in the same classroom. You have kids who play with dolls and kids who have their own babies."

Although middle schools have been neglected in past reform efforts, they must, says Janice Earle, director of the National Association of State Boards of Education's youth-service program, "become a focus for time and attention" to reduce the risk of students becoming disenchanted at a volatile age.

For many young people, she says, the "disaffiliation process" begins in the middle-school years, "so that by the time they get to high school, they are just there in body."

While middle schools have been slow to gain uniform acceptance across states and school systems, Ms. Earle says, "they have a better chance now because of attempts to bring them into urban environments" to combat high dropout rates.

Ms. Lipsitz of the Lilly Foundation worries, however, that such attention may not only be short-lived but counterproductive.

"From a national perspective, we appear to have an ability to hold only one age group in our head at a time," she says. "My concern is that this slow, steady movement that there has been over the last 10-15 years will get caught up in the latest fad"--enjoying a few years of popularity before the focus shifts again.

"It's a misconception that you can take a school and convert it in a year or two," concludes Mr. Adler of Dade County. "You never do. You just add as you go along."

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