Special Report
Student Achievement

A Feast of Offerings

By Ann Bradley — October 04, 2000 9 min read
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When Mary Cavalier glances up at the cafeteria ceiling, she sees subtle confirmation that her school is on the right track. The white paint is still spotless—free of the 20-year-old butter pats that Cavalier ordered scraped off when she arrived three years ago to remake Amherst Regional Middle School.

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Students here have better things to do than start food fights, a popular activity when the school was an overcrowded junior high. Now, with 730 7th and 8th graders and a comprehensive middle school blueprint in place, the school serves up a full plate of academic subjects, a smorgasbord of music and foreign languages, and a tempting after-school program.

And it tries to dish up equal portions for all. Seventy percent of the students are white; the school also has significant numbers of Hispanic and black students, along with many who speak Cambodian and Chinese at home. In fact, at Amherst Regional Middle School, the youngsters’ families speak a total of 27 languages, and one-third of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches.

Amherst Regional Middle works from an updated version of the influential Turning Points design to ensure its students are exposed to academic rigor.

The school is now a promising example of the Turning Points middle school design, named for the influential 1989 report by the Carnegie Council on Adolescent Development.

The model emphasizes meeting students’ social, emotional, and physical needs. But the updated version also calls for schools to teach a rigorous core academic program to all students, partly by analyzing and using data to drive decisionmaking. Faculty members work together, through a leadership team, to steer changes at their school.

“One of the pieces making them a starring school is that they’re willing to get in as a faculty and look at the issues and try and understand what’s occurring,” says Peggy Burke, the New England program director for Turning Points.

Still, Cavalier and her staff have much to do. Even this laid-back university town in western Massachusetts, with its worker-owned print shop and holistic-medicine clinics, finds educating a diverse student enrollment to high standards a challenge. About one-fifth of the school’s 8th graders fail the state’s tests. And the top 10 percent of students don’t necessarily grasp the meaning behind the words they read.

“We have a combination of people very dedicated to quality education, and a community with issues,” Cavalier says. “That makes a wonderful combination in terms of being a microcosm of what America needs to do. We need to make the best accessible to all.”

No More Tracking

Turning Points calls for eliminating tracking and ability grouping for students, a step that has been accomplished at Amherst Regional Middle School except for mathematics classes. (Not all students take algebra.)

As a junior high, though, the school had as many as six academic tracks, a practice that in 1990 prompted the Amherst branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People to file a complaint with the Massachusetts education department.

The NAACP’s allegations that minority students were disproportionately assigned to low-level classes and disciplined more often than their white peers were largely borne out by the state’s investigation.

When the district didn’t make changes fast enough, the NAACP filed suit in federal court in 1992. The next year, the association and the Amherst-Pelham Regional School District reached a consent judgment setting up a monitoring committee.

Since then, the middle school has made significant strides, says Dan French, the executive director of the Center for Collaborative Education, who was an official with the state education department when the complaint was lodged.

“The principal is really terrific,” he says of Cavalier, “and there’s a really strong focus around using data to analyze where kids are doing well and where the gaps are, and what changes in instruction, curriculum, and school organization need to occur.”

Reynolds Winslow, the president of the local NAACP, agrees: “I think it’s a better school than it used to be. The appearance from the outside appears much improved.”

To be sure, Cavalier found the vital ingredient of change already here: a willing faculty. Teachers who didn’t want to work in a middle school were given the opportunity to move to the high school when 9th graders were shipped to an addition there, a change that teachers say cut down on crowding and improved discipline.

While some middle schools flounder after putting in place the block scheduling and advisory periods for which the movement is known, teachers here clearly understand that the point of their work isn’t structural. Rather, they view their school’s organization as a means to an end.

Teachers talk more about the projects, lessons, and exhibitions their block schedule allows than they do about the schedule itself. In 7th grade, the curriculum is organized around the essential questions of “Who am I? Who are they? Who are we?"; in 8th grade, the issue is “How do we know what we know?”

“It was very traditional subject matter, and we knew we wanted to connect across the disciplines,” says Cavalier, who had extensive experience with the Turning Points principles as a principal in Stamford, Conn. “This was a happy staff, but they were used to shutting the door.”

Collective Goals

In just two years—last year was Amherst Regional’s first as a true middle school—the school has made rapid progress.

We found that things we believed we were doing, we actually weren't doing. We found loopholes, and now, we are going to connect the dots.

Each of the eight teams of teachers—four each for the two grades—is responsible for about 90 children. Teachers have common planning time twice a day, when their charges are in music or physical education and when students are practicing their Chinese, French, German, Latin, Russian, or Spanish—an unusually bountiful menu of foreign- language classes.

Cavalier’s goal is for discussions of teaching and learning—rather than the myriad distractions and logistical issues that challenge teachers—to take center stage during planning time. “I’d say we’re halfway there,” she says.

This year’s task is for teachers to share the work of their students with one another, always a scary proposition but one highly recommended by the school’s Turning Points coaches.

Teachers also have adopted a schoolwide approach to teaching reading comprehension, recommended in the book Mosaic of Thought: Teaching Comprehension in a Reader’s Workshop, by E.O. Keene and S. Zimmerman and published by Heinemann.

Teachers have considerable decisionmaking influence. The Leadership Council, on which all the teaching teams and education specialists are represented, steers the school. Smaller “inquiry groups” tackle special issues and report back to their peers. Together, the teachers complete the every-other-year self-study that is part of Turning Points’ design.

“We found that things we believed we were doing, we actually weren’t doing,” Gloria Davis, an 8th grade social studies teacher, says of the results of the school’s self-study. “We found loopholes, and now, we are going to connect the dots.”

While respecting the town of Amherst’s long history of support for music—nearly 60 percent of 7th graders participate in band, orchestra, or chorus—Cavalier is determined not to let it drive the schedule. When that happens, she and others here say, classes can become imbalanced between high- and lower-achieving students.

Within their teams, which are simply assigned letters of the alphabet, teachers have the latitude to arrange the schedule to meet their needs. The academic periods, in fact, are called “team time.”

The flexibility makes it easier for teachers to plan for students’ exhibitions, or demonstrations of their knowledge and skills. Exhibitions were pioneered by the members of 8th grade Team G. Last school year, the teachers required four exhibitions: Students had to demonstrate their knowledge in science, in social studies, and in language arts through drama, and in math by using art, before choosing a final topic to exhibit last spring.

Members of Team G also agreed to teach seven specific cognitive strategies throughout the year. The approach proved so successful that it is being used throughout the 8th grade this year.

The shared strategies transcend content and provide teachers with “a way to talk to each other without stepping on each other’s toes,” says Norm Price, an 8th grade science teacher.

In addition to fostering such cooperation, the teams enable teachers to keep track of students’ progress together and have strengthened parent involvement. Parents can attend one meeting and discuss their children’s progress with all their teachers at once, observes Kathy Reckendorf, an 8th grade reading teacher.

“You don’t have to make 10 different phone calls,” she says.

‘You Can Be Yourself’

The evident buy-in among faculty members—except for some scheduling gripes from foreign- language and music teachers—contributes to a relaxed, gentle, and cheerful atmosphere at the school.

The thing that makes Amherst special is not just multiculturalism, it's the dynamic staff of high-powered, highly intellectual people.

At the same time, it has a distinctly intellectual feeling, a tone set by the soft-spoken but earnest Mary Cavalier.

“The teachers have a sense of humor,” says Matt Baxter, an 8th grade graduate. “They will say something funny, and it feels like you don’t have to be totally calm. You can be yourself and learn in your own way.”

Adults here don’t expend a lot of visible energy on controlling students, though it is evident from the busy order that the school has clearly enforced discipline policies.

When they finish lunch, students are expected to—and generally do—push in their chairs and clear their tables. Some teachers allow gum chewing, as long as students don’t blow bubbles or leave wads under their seats.

“There’s kind of team spirit, in a weird way,” 8th grade graduate Ella Reily Stocker reports of her school.

Some of Stocker’s teachers created a unit on types of diversity— race, class, gender—that they have used to link subjects and as a theme for exhibitions. They also brought in speakers, such as a scientist who is an African-American woman, to help break stereotypes and encourage students to pursue careers.

In keeping with Turning Points’ emphasis on tending to the full range of student needs, Amherst Regional offers a federally financed lineup of activities through Savuka, its after-school program. Savuka, which means “awakening” in the Zulu language, is open to all students, but educators are thrilled to report that children who had gone home to empty houses—and whose grades were suffering—are turning out in large numbers.

For those interested in taking a thought-provoking look at society, there’s Girls Eye View, a photography and writing club that allows girls to explore their feelings about media images of women. Other students take part in periodic “poetry slams” in cafes on the main street of Amherst.

“The thing that makes Amherst special is not just multiculturalism, it’s the dynamic staff of high-powered, highly intellectual people,” says Madeline Hunter, an English teacher, who is no relation to the famous educator of that name. “When you combine that with an understanding of young adolescents, it’s very challenging for them.”

A version of this article appeared in the October 04, 2000 edition of Education Week as A Feast of Offerings


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