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Coming of Age

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A sign of a good middle school is when the office can't find the schedule of a kid.

At Canton, the team is everything. There are two within each of the school's two "houses." Each house has a principal and each team eight teachers, including two special education teachers and a parent who serves as a full-time substitute. A team is responsible for 185 students, and it remains with those same youngsters for all three middle school years. The members of each teacher team meet daily to determine scheduling and how to address the needs of individual students.

"If you don't have team planning every day, then you're not a real middle school," Spilman says in his aphoristic manner.

Team leader and social studies teacher Patrick Mogge came to Canton from a Chicago middle school where, he says, kids dropped out on account of many of the same problems that plague Canton students—family crises, substance abuse, economic stress. But at Canton, he's found that team vigilance keeps students from getting lost.

"In Chicago, I had five different classes of kids, and you lost track of them the minute they left your class. Here, though, we know what's going on with each kid, and the team together decides how to address problems, whether it be acting out in class or trouble with reading."

When Spilman arrived at Canton in 1989 from the central office, where he had been associate superintendent for curriculum development, the staff he inherited had been on a long losing streak. Test scores were among the lowest in the city, and students roamed the hallways all day. Teachers put in their hours and fled. Spilman quickly realized that the demoralized faculty could not be turned around.

"If you're in a prison cell for five years, you begin to develop a prisoner's consciousness," Spilman says. "A survival mentality takes over in which you just hope to get through the day. That's exactly what happened here, and so a lot of teachers had to move on. If you get the right personnel, you can pull the wagon. But a lot of principals make the mistake of loading the wagon and then hoping that someone can pull it."

The "wagon" Spilman wanted to pull was middle school reform. Essentially, that meant implementing the reform agenda outlined in an influential 1989 report by the Carnegie Council on Adolescent Development titled Turning Points: Preparing American Youth for the 21st Century. Carnegie's reform plan was organized around eight "essential principles" that furthered the middle school movement's early emphasis on creating a more humane learning environment. Three of the principles are central to Canton's own reform effort: that large middle schools be divided into small learning groups, that they transmit "a core of common knowledge to all students," and that they employ teachers specifically prepared to teach young adolescents.

Recruiting the right kind of teacher has been key to making these reforms work at Canton.

Recruiting the right kind of teacher has been key to making these reforms work at Canton. As veteran teachers retired or transferred to different schools—only six teachers are left from 1990—Spilman sought new hires who wanted to work together in the small, closely knit communities that are at the heart of the middle school model. And he has looked for those who could "teach up," that is, those who could bring an elementary school sensibility to middle-level education. "Middle schools brought a high school mentality into their schools, and that was a big mistake," Spilman says. "I'd much rather have teachers certified in elementary than in secondary education because they're more comfortable dealing with the whole kid."

On recruiting trips up and down the East Coast, Spilman also tries to find young college graduates with some understanding of the urban experience. In this, he meets with mixed success. "Nothing, absolutely nothing, can fully prepare you for the experience of teaching at an urban school," he says. "Just imagine the situation you find yourself in. You're supposed to teach children so that they can meet certain academic standards, and then you discover that your students are lacking all kinds of skills, in addition to carrying certain kinds of emotional baggage. The new teacher, no matter how committed and primed she may be, somehow expects suburban kids."

Although Spilman is all too aware of the discomfort young teachers face at an urban school like Canton, he nevertheless prefers them to tired veterans. "It's a lot easier to develop new talent than to remake old talent," he says. "So we've gone after people who are open to flying to Egypt tonight and bargaining at the market in Cairo. People like that are going to be fast learners, to take leadership upon themselves."

Although getting the right teachers was important, Spilman thought more had to be done. In 1994, three years after he divided the school into houses and created teacher teams, he made a couple of bold, controversial moves to ensure that Canton would follow the Carnegie plan and transmit "a core of common knowledge to all students." First, he moved the school's 100 special education students into regular classrooms. The teachers didn't like the idea. Special education teachers felt territorial; they did not want to give up their self-contained classrooms. The others worried that these "different kids" would be disruptive.

Eventually, the teachers agreed to the experiment when Spilman secured a grant to reduce class sizes from more than 40 students to about 30. With smaller numbers of students, the teachers believed they could maintain control. Now, Spilman says, "You can't always tell who the special ed students are in a classroom."

Spilman persuaded the faculty to agree to the elimination of ability grouping and, even more startling, grade levels.

On the heels of this change, Spilman implemented even more dramatic reforms. He persuaded the faculty to agree to the elimination of ability grouping and, even more startling, grade levels. Eleven-year-olds sit in classrooms next to kids who are 13, and all students—6th graders through 8th—get the same curriculum, with the single exception of math. Topics are taught in three-year cycles, so no child studies the same material twice.

To Spilman, this radical approach is the only thing that makes sense with middle school students. "It has long been obvious to me that grade levels are meaningless at this age—it just doesn't matter that much if kids are 10 or 13. An 11-year-old kid may knock the socks off an algebra test or write a hell of an essay, while a 13-year-old may be struggling with reading.

"Besides, eliminating grade levels gets rid of the 8th grade problem," Spilman says, flashing an impish grin. "Eighth graders can be a load to deal with when they're all in the same class. Break them up, and the problems dissipate. It's a case of divide and conquer."

Despite all this progressive change, Canton retains a traditionalist streak, particularly when it comes to discipline. As its faculty never tires of reminding you, Canton remains an urban middle school with its share of tough, troubled kids. Maintaining classroom order is crucial, Spilman says.

"We want teachers to over-manage in the beginning. We tell them that you can't be pals right off or they'll chew you up. Later, once you have their respect, the whole world opens up."

Canton teachers are encouraged to be all business, a disposition reflected in the list of rules prominently displayed in each classroom: "Do not interrupt while others are talking"; "No fighting, swearing, or teasing"; "Raise your hand before responding"; and "Sit in your assigned seat." In some classrooms, there are wall charts blanketed with stars and checks; students get bonus points and demerits for good and bad behavior.

"These are not polite suburban kids," one teacher says. "They need to be told very explicitly what constitutes acceptable and unacceptable behavior. A lot of them don't know the social norms."

Occasionally, teachers take a few minutes of class time to give their students minilessons in deportment. In a language arts class, for example, a teacher briefly halts a punctuation lesson to give his distracted students a primer in what he calls "the steps to show listening."

"First, look at me," he tells a group of students. "Now, keep your hands free and point a knee in my direction. There, now you're listening." Later, he breaks up a ruckus between two students with a short lecture on the importance of good conduct, after which he has the youngsters shake hands.

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