Millswood Middle School principal Sheree Flemmer is the head of what she calls a small community of 840 students and 36 teachers. But that community replaces half of its student population every two years.
“The bad thing about middle school is that there’s only two years. The good thing is that there’s only two years,” she said.
Entering middle school can be a tough transition for incoming seventh-graders.
They don’t understand what a grade-point average is. They have seven different teachers. And their new building is huge.
That could be changing.
Schools across the country are reviewing research indicating middle schools are a weak link in the chain of public education, especially when it comes to test scores. Some, including the Lodi Unified School District, are looking at stepping away from the model that places seventh- and eighth-graders on their own campus.
Columbia University Business School associate professor Jonah Rockoff studies education issues, among them school grade configurations. He said there’s no question that when students enter middle school there is a large drop in their achievement scores in English and math compared to their counterparts in K-8 schools.
“They’re moving to a new school, mixed in with new peers, with teachers who do not know them, and they’re doing this at a time in childhood when we start seeing behavioral issues like rebellion against adults,” he said. “It’s not a good time.”
So in Lodi and elsewhere, the question arises: Should middle schools be reconsidered?
Moving in a new direction
For years, Lodi Unified School District has tip-toed around the question as to whether the K-8 model is better than the “island approach” of middle school, and staff have only just begun collecting data. At K-8 schools, students remain on the same campus from kindergarten through eighth grade, then enter high school.
The suggestion to embrace K-8 for all newly constructed schools dates back several years, according to Assistant Superintendent Art Hand, who oversees district construction. The idea may also be considered in relation to existing schools, he said.
Board president George Neely is encouraging a deeper districtwide examination. That could begin at Clairmont Elementary School in North Stockton, where parents welcome extending the current grade levels beyond sixth grade.
For most of the last 30 years, districts have opted to put “tweens” in a separate place, away from little children and apart from the big kids. Middle schools typically serve a combination of fifth through eighth grades. In California, there are 1,130 middle schools, according to the department of education. There are 17,000 schools statewide.
Lodi Unified currently has two K-8 schools and six stand-alone middle school structures, while Galt has one middle school to serve all of its seventhand eighth-graders.
Recent research suggests that a middle school grade configuration is probably not the way to go.
Rockoff and fellow researcher Benjamin Lockwood reported their findings from a review of almost 10 years of data for New York school children. They found that students’ academic achievement in middle schools, as measured by standardized tests, falls substantially in both math and English relative to that of their counterparts who continue to attend a K-8 elementary school.
Rockoff said K-8 schools build on curriculum from kindergarten and the same group of teachers shepherd their students longer before they head to high school.
At Millswood, about the time seventh-graders become accustomed to the middle school structure, it’s time for a new grade with a completely different focus.
Eighth grade is all about preparing for high school. Students become familiar with the skills needed for high school before being faced with a more challenging curriculum, navigating a larger school and managing their time.
Some students come from such small elementary schools that they need time to learn how to deal with a different environment, Flemmer said.
But at Houston School, staff knows everybody’s names, according to Principal Allison Gerrity.
The Acampo campus is one of Lodi Unified’s last K-8 models. With multiple children moving up through the grade levels, a good rapport develops between parents and teachers, Gerrity said.
She notices that children with younger siblings on campus often curb their bad behavior on the playground, as though they don’t want to be a bad influence.
“There’re less bad words, less pushing,” she said.
The range of grades also offers room for creative discipline. Students who act out in the upper classes are often sent to the primary grades to listen to a young reader practicing. This works two-fold by giving the youngster a sounding board and requiring the older kid to practice something else: patience, Gerrity said.
Older Joe Serna Jr. Charter School students also help the younger students. The campus serves students from kindergarten through eighth grade.
In a school setting parent Cammie Plath calls very close-knit, her eldest son flourished, she said. “The older students also can help younger ones as buddies in certain classes, while still maintaining a separate status as middle-schoolers,” she said.
In some ways, it’s like there are two schools on one campus when it comes to K-8 models.
The K-6 students have one teacher a day, like a standard elementary structure, while the upper grades’ schedules are divided among several single-subject teachers. For the most part, older and younger students only mix on the playground before school or during the afterschool program.
One downside is that the middle school segment of campus is so small. Houston can’t offer as many elective or advanced placement classes as its seventhand eighth-grade-only counterparts. They have drafting, band, yearbook and computer skills classes, but that’s about it, according to Gerrity.
Just this week, a think tank released a study that provided strategies to help middle school students transition to high school and ultimately graduation.
Middle and high schools can reduce the dropout rate by working together to plan that transition, and holding activities to familiarize students with the campus and help them feel connected to their new schools, the report found.
“The transition from middle school to high school can be challenging for students,” State Superintendent Tom Torlakson said in a prepared statement. “The good news is that some simple steps to make students welcome can give them the confidence they need to stay on track and stay in school.”
Among other strategies are creating opportunities for staff across school levels to jointly plan and collaborate, and identifying students who are struggling prior to transition.
Plath’s son, Aaron, transferred to Lodi High School after graduating from Serna. There he excelled socially and academically even though he did not go to a bigger middle school such as Millswood or Lodi Middle.
“I know there are a lot of opinions out there on this, but we are very pleased that we have this option at our school,” said Plath, whose middle child is currently enrolled in sixth grade at Serna where he, too, will stay through eighth grade.
“We like the smaller class sizes, even though they do switch classes for the different subjects, and the individual attention if needed,” she said.
Given the school’s Spanish Immersion program, it was important to her and her husband that their eldest complete the whole program rather than leaving for middle school.
And there wasn’t an issue of him not having a large group of friends to move into high school with, Plath said.
“They have friends at school, but also through sports, church, and our neighborhood ... Aaron knew several different kids, not just the ones he went to Serna with,” she said.
Single-school districts including Oak View, New Hope and Arcohe have placed all of their K-8 students in one school because there are not enough students to support separate campuses. For example, only about 200 students attend New Hope Elementary School in Thornton.
In Galt, the structure is the opposite. There, middle school students are performing well on a single campus that serves only seventhand eighth-graders.
Earlier this year, McCaffrey made a four-point jump — from a 5 to a 9 — when compared to similar schools in standardized test result rankings. The highest mark is a 10.
The school is also one of just 97 statewide named a California Distinguished School for 2011.
In recent years, the district has examined reconfiguration models due to declining enrollment and school closures, and have looked at shifting to K-8 schools, Superintendent Karen Schauer said.
“Stakeholders in our district either really embrace the K-8 model or feel that older students are better prepared for high school with a middle school model. Our past research has demonstrated benefits to either model,” she said. “The bottom-line, regardless of the school configuration, is a caring school environment with quality instruction and high expectations for all students.”
It’s not clear how, but current discussions on unifying the elementary district with the high school district could affect campus configurations.
In the end, there are benefits to each model, educators say.
Lodi Unified has a strong college-bound culture, according to Millswood’s Flemmer. The middle school format gets students thinking about the future before it arrives during their senior year.
Such a concentrated experience creates new opportunities for exploratory classes that aren’t feasible at a school with a larger range of curriculum to manage.
Millswood students can choose to enroll in performing arts classes, like band, strings, chorus or drama, or take French or Spanish. Other options include computer basics, a study skills class and Advancement Via Individual Determination, a college readiness course.
“It isn’t a one-size-fits-all situation as far as education,” Flemmer said.
In a K-8 structure, older siblings can model good behaviors for their younger brothers, sisters and peers.
The silver lining to it all, Flemmer said, is that Lodi is an open enrollment district that allows families to request a transfer from their neighborhood campus.
“Parents have the opportunity to ask themselves, ‘Where is my child going to be successful?’” she said.