School & District Management

Huge Middle School Tries To Feel Small

By Linda Jacobson — May 10, 2000 9 min read

Lunchtime at Creekland Middle School is conducted with order and precision. Classes have exactly one minute to get through the hallways and into the lunch line. And after dropping off their dirty trays, students have to walk along the perimeter of the cafeteria to leave, instead of clogging up the middle of the room.

“The Army could learn from us,” remarked Susan M. Eyring, one of seven assistant principals here.

Such rules may seem to verge on regimentation, but they are necessary at Creekland.

Not only is it the largest middle school in Georgia’s Gwinnett County—which is growing so fast that new campuses often open with portable classrooms on site—but it also has more students than all but one of the 12 high schools in the 104,000-student suburban Atlanta district. With more than 3,100 students, it is also larger than many entire school districts in Georgia, and is even believed to be the largest middle school in the country.

Yet despite those distinctions, efforts to create a small school environment at Creekland are clearly visible.

The schools’ leaders share the view prevalent among many experts that organizing schools so that children feel connected to one another and to the adults in the building is vital—especially for those entering their teenage years.

“I think it’s tough when you get over 1,500 adolescents in a building,” said Jack Berckemeyer, the director of member and affiliate services for the National Middle School Association in Columbus, Ohio. “I think smaller middle schools are probably more appropriate.”

With that in mind, district leaders and Creekland’s principal, Joan H. Akin, designed the school to be broken up into smaller units—or communities—even before Creekland opened its doors in 1996.

That structure, also called houses or schools-within-a-school, allows students to reap some of the same benefits they would receive if they were in a school with a much smaller enrollment.

Combating Anonymity

Interest in the model used at Creekland has grown in recent years, partly in response to incidents of school violence. The hope is that if adults know students well, they will be able to detect changes in behavior and head off any problems before they turn into tragedy.

Such arrangements can “reduce the feeling of anonymity that permeates the student body at large urban and suburban schools,” according to last month’s NEGP Monthly, a newsletter from the Washington-based National Education Goals Panel.

The approach has also caught the attention of President Clinton, whose budget proposal this year includes a $120 million small-schools initiative for large high schools. The money would be used to build smaller schools or to break up existing schools into more-manageable divisions.

Creekland Middle School opened with 2,300 students—a number that at the time made many parents uncomfortable. During the design stage, parents and other members of the community often asked the school board to reconsider its plans.

“We had to sell the public on making this a large school,” said Ms. Akin, who actually helped design the building with assistance from parents, teachers, and administrators.

Enrollment will reach more than 3,300 next school year, with 38 portable classrooms on campus. After that, some relief will come when a new middle school opens in the area.

The school is structured into five “communities"—A through E—with each having its own assistant principal, school counselor, and secretary. Each community has its own suite of offices where students can go if they have a question or a problem. That system keeps traffic down in the main office—a hectic place where one recent Monday morning, the staff was handling the registration of at least two new students and trying to cover classrooms that did not yet have substitute teachers for the day.

When children enter Creekland in 6th grade, they are randomly assigned to a community and stay there until they finish 8th grade and leave for high school. Younger siblings are automatically placed in the same community as their older brothers or sisters. That way, parents grow familiar with the teachers as their children move through middle school.

Teachers work in teams of two, with each teacher focusing on two subjects. While many middle schools use four-person teams, with each teacher concentrating on a single academic area, the arrangement at Creekland allows teachers to get to know their students better, said Vanessa Platto, who teaches 7th grade math and science.

“You know if they’ve had a haircut. You know if they’ve got a new shirt on,” she said.

‘We Are One School’

One common complaint about the school-within-a-school structure in general is that children won’t get to meet students outside their communities. Some youngsters, meanwhile, worry that they’ll never see their best friends from elementary school, even though they are still in the same school.

Whether that is the case at Creekland varies from student to student, but the communities are mixed during exploratory—or elective—classes, such as technology, music, or foreign languages. Clubs and other school organizations are also open to the whole student body.

Students who decide to get involved in orchestra, band, or the school chorus have the added benefit of being in those programs for the entire school year, allowing them to form stronger relationships with classmates and teachers.

The fact that Creekland has 600 children in its band program, however, makes it practically impossible for teachers to give students any one-on-one instruction, said Patti Stafford, the school’s PTA president.

“But you don’t want to tell the kids not to participate,” she said. “We don’t say we’re too big to do something. We just have to find a new way to do it.”

Experts often say that competitiveness at the middle school level should be downplayed as much as possible, and Ms. Akin has tried to spread that message throughout the school. Communities don’t compete against each other for awards or during events, for example. “Our focus has always been that we are one school,” the principal said.

Parents, staff members, and others familiar with Creekland say the school is largely successful because of Ms. Akin, who has spent her entire 31-year teaching and administrative career at middle schools in Gwinnett County.

In 1993, Ms. Akin, who has a friendly, dimpled smile and a warm personality, received a National Educator Award from the Santa Monica, Calif.-based Milken Family Foundation. Also that year, Lawrenceville Middle School, which later became Creekland, was named a Georgia School of Excellence, a highly competitive recognition program modeled after a distinction given by the U.S. Department of Education.

Hooked on Middle School

While Ms. Akin had intended to go into psychiatric social work, she was hooked on education after her first year of teaching 6th grade in 1969.

She says she loves middle schoolers because she feels she can still make a difference in their lives.

“They still respect authority, but they don’t want their friends to think they do,” she said.

Because of the community structure at Creekland, Ms. Akin compares her job now to that of a superintendent of a small district.

As the top administrator of the school, her contact with parents and students often comes when a serious behavior problem arises or if there is a disagreement over a decision made by an assistant principal."I deal with the tough ones,” she said.

She often resists requests to reassign children to different classes or communities. “Change seems to be a solution to a problem, but kids this age don’t handle change well,” she said.

Students here say their awe at the size of Creekland is only temporary. Once they get settled into a homeroom and learn the routine, many say they don’t feel lost in the crowd.

“Now that we’ve been here awhile, it doesn’t feel that big,” said 6th grader Amanda Kagan.

Her classmate Melissa Pitcher added that going to a large middle school is good preparation for high school and other educational experiences.

“If you plan to go to college, it gets you used to big places,” she said.

But Kori Oronzio, who is also in the 6th grade, pointed out one negative aspect of attending a school this size. “I’ve only seen the principal once or twice,” she said. “I’ve never talked to her.”

Ms. Akin regrets that she’s not on a more personal level with Creekland’s students, but she attends as many school activities as she can. And she said that when she’s at the shopping mall or in a restaurant, she smiles at any youngsters who look as if they might be middle school age, just in case they go to Creekland.

“I do hope they don’t realize how few of them I know,” she said.

She does know all 272 members of the faculty and staff, who gather once a month for a meeting. But teachers often don’t know each other, unless they teach the same subject, grade, or are in the same community.

Size Can Help

Because teachers and administrators in Georgia are allotted to schools through a formula based on enrollment, Creekland can provide students with opportunities that are not available at other schools.

It is the only school in the county that offers three foreign languages all year—French, Spanish, and Latin.

More classes catering to gifted and advanced students are also available. Creekland has an assistant principal who devotes most of her time to staff development, and teachers can be shifted throughout the school without increasing class sizes.

The same formula, however, can also hurt large schools. Regardless of their size, schools receive state funding for only one secretary and one technology specialist. “If you’re going to have schools this size, that formula needs to take into account the extra enrollment,” Ms. Akin said.

More activities for students also mean more opportunities for parents to be involved, said Ms. Stafford, the PTA president, whose three children have all attended Creekland.

Parents volunteer as school greeters and often walk through the hallways as an added safety measure. And this school year, a parent resource center will open in the school’s impressive two-story media center to provide an extra source of information.

‘A Sense of Identity’

John H. Lounsbury, the retired dean of the school of education at Georgia College and State University in Milledgeville and an expert on middle school education, visited the school recently as part of a group of educators who were preparing to build a large school—a mere 1,600 students—in the Milledgeville area.

His impressions of the school are also part of a forthcoming book he has co- written, called Multiage Grouping, Looping, and Schools-Within-A-School: Ways To Achieve Long-Term Teacher-Student Relationships.

In the book, he describes Creekland’s communities as “effective entities for delivering the curriculum in a comfortable climate where students have a sense of identity.”

“If [Creekland] weren’t organized the way it was, and it didn’t have above-average teachers, it would be a mess,” Mr. Lounsbury, who now works as a publications editor for the National Middle School Association, said in an interview. “It’s obvious that in order for teachers to have the impact on kids that we want them to have, we have to do more than keep them together for an hour in math.”

Ms. Akin said complaints from parents about the size of the school, and the way it is managed, are occasionally still raised when there is a problem with a teacher or a decision about discipline.

“I hear, ‘The school is too big to take care of my child,’” she said. “But it’s not a lingering issue because it does work so well.”

A version of this article appeared in the May 10, 2000 edition of Education Week as Huge Middle School Tries To Feel Small


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