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Is the Time Right for "Elemiddles?"

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Once sixth-through-eighth graders had a place and program of their own, educators said a few decades ago, they would flourish academically and developmentally. While true in many cases, some communities are finding that buildings full of hormone-drenched young adolescents are neither tranquil nor productive. So they reverted to the old "grammar" school structure of kindergarten through eighth grade in a single school, and are pleased with the results. Included: Descriptions of successful K-8 programs.

Starting about 25 years ago, educators declared middle schools the educational-social salvation of young adolescents.

Now, though, as many middle school administrators struggle to raise test scores and lower suspension rates, some districts -- including some of the largest in the U.S.-- are turning back to a model once relegated to the education archives: K-8 schools.

"K-8 schools declined from the mid-1960s to mid-1990s, but over the last four to five years, districts are coming back to them," according to David L. Hough, dean of the college of education and director of the Institute for School Improvement at Southwest Missouri State University, who has studied middle-level education for 15 years. He calls the new K-8 schools "elemiddles." "I think people may not be pleased with middle schools; they also are searching for ways to increase cooperative learning and peer tutoring."

THE WARM AND FUZZY FACTOR

For years, the prevailing thought in education was that the unique needs of young adolescents are best met when youngsters are in their own school with programs tailored to their stage of development.

Increasing numbers of communities, though, are unhappy with the atmosphere in their middle schools.

"There are lots of different issues when you have middle schools," said Amy Guerin, spokeswoman for the School District of Philadelphia (Pennsylvania), which wants to convert all its elementary schools to K-8 schools. "The trauma of changing to middle school is reflected in the [students'] grades."

Some administrators in districts with K-8 schools say middle-school-age students learn and behave better when they remain in a familiar environment for nine years and can serve as role models for younger children.

"It's the most volatile age, and [in middle schools] there is no one older to serve as role models, and no one younger for whom they can serve as role models," noted Kathleen Ware, former associate superintendent, of the Cincinnati (Ohio) Public Schools.

"K-8 schools are more personal," continued Dr. Nancy McGinley, executive director of the Philadelphia Education Fund, a nonprofit organization that works with the school system on initiatives such as research and reforms. "Teachers and administrators know the kids well; students benefit in terms of programs and parent involvement. Parents tend to think K-8 schools are safer. There are fewer school climate issues in terms of safety and discipline."

In some cases, tighter budgets have forced schools to move to K-8 schools, said Hough.

"Often people look at what is the most cost-effective way to house students," he said. Adding two grades into a building usually is less costly than operating another school. Most parochial schools, for example, are K-8 out of necessity, according to Hough; Roman Catholic parishes cannot afford more than one school.

If cost is not an issue, school systems should look at what is best for children, Hough continued, and he supports K-8 schools.

"The transition [to middle grades] is easier, K-8s are warmer and easier for the kids; students can interact with younger siblings and kids, and it's more family-oriented," he said. "It's always a shock to move to a new building. This keeps them in a more nurturing environment."

THE REST OF THE PHILADELPHIA STORY

Giving students and families more continuity and support are among the reasons Philadelphia schools' Chief Executive Officer Paul Vallas has challenged his staff to convert as many of the city's elementary schools as possible to K-8s. Vallas' deep dissatisfaction with the district's middle schools prompted a study a few years ago that revealed in many cases students performed better academically and behaved better in K-8 schools than middle schools.

"Paul Vallas asked me to set up a middle school task force," said McGinley of the Philadelphia Education Fund. "He came in with strong feelings about middle schools in urban settings; he feels they don't do the job they should do academically and socially."

"The existing middle schools were becoming like small high schools," Guerin added.

Philadelphia, the nation's seventh largest school system, has both middle and K-8 schools; the Education Fund's 2002 report noted that converting high-poverty middle schools to K-8 schools could play a role in improving student performance -- although that should not be the sole reform initiative. Students in smaller middle schools also outperformed their peers in larger schools.

In addition, a 1998 school district report indicated that, generally, students who attended K-8s scored higher on Stanford 9 achievement tests.

While 71 percent of Philadelphia students still attend middle schools, the conversion process has begun. The sheer volume of students, though, makes it a multi-year changeover: the city has about 32,000 students in grades 6 to 8. "I'm not sure when the conversion will be complete," McGinley told Education World. "Projections for classroom space indicate we need more time."

The 2002 report, though, was not a middle-school-bashing document. Researchers also recommended finding ways to create middle schools with the size and staffing advantages of K-8s and the instructional and professional development strategies used in higher-performing middle schools.

"I think there is some evidence that K-8 schools have a better environment," McGinley said. "But to really hit student achievement, other issues have to be addressed, such as staff turnover, size, and teacher qualifications. There are things we can do to develop effective middle schools."

CHANGES PARENT-DRIVEN

While improving middle schools may be on some communities' agendas, in others, parental concerns about negative middle school climates prompted districts to abandon them. Administrators in Cincinnati, and St. John the Baptist Parish Schools in Reserve, Louisiana, said converting to K-8 schools has won support from parents and benefited students.

"The impetus for the change came from parents -- they didn't like the neighborhood middle schools," said Ware, Cincinnati's former associate superintendent. The middle schools served seventh and eighth graders. "Parents felt the schools were unsafe and they were not pleased with the academics. The achievement was poor, attendance poor, and the suspension and expulsion rates were high."

Cincinnati now has 60 elementary schools and 45 K-8 schools. The conversion began in 1993-1994, involving one or two schools a year, and all the schools that could be reconfigured were done by 1998, a year ahead of schedule.

Even though seventh and eighth graders remain in an elementary school building, the academic program for them did change. "We incorporated the best aspects of the seventh and eighth grade approach, such as team teaching," Ware said. "Parent surveys showed the parents were very pleased."

Also, no more than 25 percent of students in a building are seventh and eighth graders, and they are encouraged to help in the lower grades. "We have them mentor younger children," she said.

Some schools remain kindergarten through sixth grade because they do not have room for two more grades, said Christine Wolff, district spokeswoman.

The affects of the change are encouraging. In one year, 1995-1996, attendance for seventh and eighth graders in middle schools was 81 percent; at K-8 schools, attendance was 89 percent.

Also, that same year, the number of middle school students per 100 who were suspended was 87.7. In the K-8 schools, the number was 32.8.

"The K-8 pattern seems to work well with urban schools," Wolff told Education World.

STOPPING THE DRAIN

In St. John the Baptist Parish, parent dissatisfaction with the middle schools was so high that about 50 percent of students would leave the district after elementary school to enroll in parochial or private schools, said superintendent Michael Coburn. "Parents were not pleased with the grades 6 to 8 program," he told Education World. "Parents were concerned about discipline problems in the junior high; the kids were comfortable at the elementary school and didn't want to leave. Our enrollment had been dropping for the past nine years."

In an effort to stop the outward migration, the district began converting to K-8 schools last year, by keeping the seventh graders in their elementary schools, and completed the transformation this fall. And parent response to the change was immediate; the district gained 150 students last fall and hopes for an even bigger return this year.

"We truly believe in K-8; students perform better and the discipline is better," Coburn said. "We had about 59 percent fewer discipline problems with the seventh graders last year. This way, kids know the system, they know the expectations, and they don't have to adjust to anything. It builds pride in the school, and they get to stay big fish for another two years."

Coburn sees the K-8 conversion as the start of a district turnaround. "Parents have been very, very positive," he said. "For the first time in 30 years, there is confidence in the public school system. We're trying to turn the tide and improve test scores We're going to do everything possible to get them [students who transferred] back."

ANOTHER "QUICK FIX"?

Still, others involved with middle school education are cautious about abandoning the current model too hastily. "So many times, people look for quick fixes," according to Jack Berckemeyer, assistant executive director of the National Middle School Association (NMSA). "Someone comes out with one study, and it becomes the banner for change."

Budget cuts are behind some communities' shift to K-8 schools, he said. "They have room in the buildings." How the K-8 configuration could improve discipline is still unclear, he continued.

Berckemeyer, added, though, that he is less concerned about the type of school students attend than the educational program.

"Our concern is the education of 10-14-year olds," he told Education World. "It's not so much about configuring as it is about how to meet their needs. I just hope they [K-8 schools] are still doing a middle school model -- using team teaching and advisories and exposing students to other teachers Principals in those schools [also] have to make sure they are focused on a professional development approach for elementary and middle school teachers."

Often, though, middle schools have trouble finding quality teachers; faculties in K-8 schools often are more stable, according to Hough. In some cases, high school-level teachers seeking jobs go to middle schools, which can be a mistake. "Teachers should not be in middle schools just because they could not find a job in high schools," Hough said. "They are not prepared for this age group."

Teacher preparation programs for middle level educators also should resemble the elementary education programs, he said.

"Schools of education do a better job of preparing elementary teachers to meet children's needs by teaching pedagogy. I think teachers who teach middle-level kids should be steeped in pedagogy," Hough added.

A CLOSER LOOK

Hough thinks there are enough pluses to the K-8 structure that he wants to study how students from those schools stack up academically to middle school alumni. "There has not been one single national study of that."

Hough is part of an eight-member national team seeking to create a database to determine if academic achievement is higher in one configuration or another. "We're developing a proposal for a grant," he said.

Student behavior in the two configurations is an area Hough has not explored. "There is no definitive answer [about where students are better behaved,]" he said. "In some cases, there is better behavior [in the K-8 schools.]"

Some educators, however, don't need any more convincing. Based on what they have seen, K-8s are their middle education remedy. "That way, kids stay in a school community they have known for many years," said Cincinnati's Wolff.

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