Why middle school matters so much

To the voices in the community who say that for financial reasons, Easton and Redding should shut down both middle school buildings and send fifth- and sixth-graders to the elementary schools and seventh- and eighth-graders to Joel Barlow High School, School Superintendent Dr. Thomas McMorran has a message:

“We know — we don’t think — that’s the wrong thing to do.”

The elementary school’s achievement sets the middle school potential, and the middle school sets the high school’s potential, McMorran said. “For our kids to go on a journey from childhood to young adulthood, they need middle school as a way stop. Our approach is so much more responsive to young adolescents than treating them as young adults.”

He said that age 10 to 14 is “so explosive in growth” that this age group’s schooling must be as much about their social and emotional development as it is about academics.

“We want it all: We want positive, warm middle schools making kids feel so secure and confident they reach for academic excellence,” he said.

The concept of middle school-level education for young adolescents is not new; the research has been around since the 1960s, and implementation soon followed on a nationwide basis.

But declining enrollment in Easton and Redding poses a threat that prompted McMorran and middle school principals Susan Kaplan and Diane Martin to speak out.

Easton, Redding and Region 9’s enrollment peaked in 2007 and is expected to drop an estimated 40% by 2025, the end of the forecast period. The current school year’s population didn’t fall as much as expected; the schools actually added a few dozen students over what was projected.

That trend could continue if families with children continue to move to Easton and Redding, school officials say. The fact that the housing market never fully recovered in Connecticut after the 2008 recession might work in the two town’s favor since houses are more affordable to young families than during pre-recession highs.

Easton and Redding aren’t alone in seeing a drop in public school enrollment. It began in Connecticut in 2002 and it’s happening across almost all Connecticut towns. The cities, by contrast, are seeing their school populations rise.

The ER9 schools have been looking at a variety of way to adapt to the falling enrollment, including possibly closing one or more schools. But McMorran says closing a school should not be an option.

“We’re saying the bread and butter work is to learn academic skills, but we are not going to give up your right to be five years old, or 12 years old or 17 years,” he said. “We are a

greedy group of people because we don’t want the kids to give up the pleasure of being a child or adolescent.”

Growing bodies and minds

Parents and visitors to Helen Keller and John Read middle schools will see a lot going on that’s different from when they were adolescents.

McMorran described the underlying philosophy in the Board of Education conference room with Kaplan, who is principal at Helen Keller Middle School in Easton and Martin, principal at John Read Middle School in Redding. Assistant Superintendent Stephanie Pierson-Ugol also joined the discussion.

Christine Antipas demonstrates and discusses an upcoming assignment with her eighth-grade students.

Christine Antipas demonstrates and discusses an upcoming assignment with her eighth-grade students.

“If you walk around the buildings you don’t see students sitting in rows,” McMorran said. “You see physical structures have grown to help kids engage in a variety of seating options. We have traditional desks and standing desks, and other options. Cooperative work groups are designed for growing bodies along with physical fitness and recess.”

Ugol said the criteria they use allows kids to be free to move.

McMorran said they are aligning their practice with longstanding research on this age group,

documented in a book they call the “middle school bible.” Middle school is literally the center of the educational journey of a kid and is not a junior high, he said.

All Easton and Redding middle school teachers have a copy of This We Believe, Keys to Educating Young Adolescents, published by the American Middle Level Education Association publication.

“Diane and Susan have done a lot of thinking and a lot of work to align what we believe about middle school structure and what we’re doing in the buildings,” McMorran said. “The students and parents see the effects, but they don’t see the architecture that generates it.”

“We all believe the middle school meets the unique needs of this level,” Kaplan said. “Developmentally middle-school students are very different from elementary and high school students. We work hard to develop programs that are developmentally correct for this age.”

Students in Michelle Ciuffetelli's class at John Read Middle School work together to solve a problem.

Students in Michelle Ciuffetelli’s class at John Read Middle School work together to solve a problem.

Martin said it’s also important to recognize the role of the family for young adolescents.

“The  relationship is changing between students and parents,” she said.  “It’s a transition in their lives.”

She said It’s hard for parents to watch their kids struggle to become more independent. “As much as we talk about kindergarten parents crying, we often have parents of kids coming to middle school feeling the same way,” she said. “How can we help parents navigate their child’s growing independence?”

Martin said they tell parents that kids this age need to experience trial and error, and having a safety net is key.

A parent might help a child study for a test, and leave the child on their own for the next test and see how it works out. If it didn’t work too well, the parent can talk with the child about how they can study better the next time, she said.

Or maybe the child has an interaction with a peer that doesn’t work out so well. “How do you apologize to a friend?” she said. Parents can talk with their child about finding the right balance so kids can learn to have friendships where they can disagree but still remain friends.

Parents and teachers can also work with middle-schoolers about how to approach conflicts and navigate through problems. Sometimes middle school kids get a bad rap, but they actually do a pretty good job of dealing with conflict, Ugol said.

Martin agreed and said, “Sometimes you just wish adults could resolve conflicts the way middle school kids do.”

Kaplan is pleased that Keller added recess to the lunch period this year. Some years ago she attended a conference on learning where she learned about brain structure and mindfulness, and the importance of taking a moment to  breath fresh air and stop the chaos. Recess helps accomplish that, she said.

“So far it seems to be working well,” she said. “The eighth-grade boys, with their long lanky legs, immediately self-organized a racing game and spend their time running around. It’s most joyful to watch.”

Read school has always had recess because they have fifth-graders. “We believe having time to go outside and run around resets the body clock so the learning goes up,” McMorran said.

Ugol said young adolescents need to have the ability to have adults connections, someone in the building they can go to who knows and cares about them.

The team structure at the middle schools allows teachers to get to know all of the students and to interact with them. The relatively small size of the Easton and Redding schools aligns with the middle school model, which calls for 300 to 500 kids per school.

Fifth-grade students in Heather Sam's class at John Read Middle School discuss an upcoming assignment.

Fifth-grade students in Heather Sam’s class at John Read Middle School discuss an upcoming assignment.

Reed School, which has fifth- through eighth-graders, has 423 students. Keller, which has sixth- through eighth-graders, has 321 students. So both schools fall into the desired size range.

Easton, Redding and Region 9 schools are at war with No Child Left Behind and the whole edifice of high stakes testing and accountability, McMorran said.

They are far from alone. The PDK Poll of public attitudes toward public schools has been a reflection of U.S. opinion about public education since 1969. The 2017 PDK Poll shows how people across America rank school quality. The results show that people value accountability over standardized tests, which ranks last.

Here is the breakdown:

  • Teach cooperative respect, problem solving, 36%
  • Technology and engineering classes, 25%
  • Advanced academic classes, 14%
  • Art and music classes, 11%
  • Extracurricular activities, 8%
  • Standardized test performance, 6%

“It’s all about relationships,” McMorran said. “It’s about helping children grow, it’s about valuing this point in their life.”

Changing times

“Parenting is hard for every parent no matter what generation,” Kaplan said. “The challenges today are unique and frightening from my perspective.”

Parents are physically protecting their children and keeping track of their activities, but kids are also growing up on their smart phone, isolated in their rooms, often with no controls. Parents need to monitor kids on their phones, she said.

McMorran said that going back two generations, a big part of what educators were trying to do was to get kids to know enough as possible about the world.  

“Now a big part of what we’re trying to do is build in filters to keep the world at a distance, and help kids know how to make good choices,” he said. “Our kids can’t be safe in homes if there is unlimited cable subscriptions and access to the Internet.”

Declining numbers dilemma

New England School Development Council (NESDEC) determined that it isn’t physically viable to close Keller and put the kids at Staples, Ugol said. “It physically can’t be done to close down Keller,” she said. “It would also be inappropriate to have all the kids at the elementary school and then the high school.”

“We won’t be moving out of here,” McMorran said of the ER9 boards of education location in the municipal building at 654 Morehouse Road in Easton. “We did look at moving to the north wing of Keller.”

The trouble is that it would cost an estimated $600,000, and in 2025, the school board might have to move again if the school population starts to rise again.

“We need all three runners in this three-baton race we’re in,” McMorran said. “The elementary school passes off the baton to give to the middle school and to the high school. We have a lot of faith in the people who are running and working at the middle schools.”

The philosophy has received outside validation. ER9 belongs to the Tri-State Consortium, a group of 46 high-performing schools in Connecticut, New York and New Jersey.

A team, call the Critical Friends Model, visited and evaluated Easton and Redding middle schools from Oct. 19 to 21, 2016. They assessed how well Keller and Read meet the attributes and characteristics of a successful middle school.

“We asked them to look at the design of curriculum, instructional strategies, if our kids are having authentic personalized strategies, and how they are using data,” McMorran said. “The whole group was here with us for three days.”

The consultancy team affirmed the structure and the way the schools are using resources. As challenges to confront it cited “three levels, three districts, three board and three budgets. When examining the middle level experience it was impossible to ignore the variance that existed as a result of the ‘condition of three.’”

In its final thoughts, the team said, “The entire consultancy team left Easton and Redding feeling inspired and energized. The sense of community and commitment to middle level education was palpable at both schools. Many members of the team shared how much she or he had learned and gained through the experiences and observation.”

Alternative furniture is available to students in Karen Mangino's seventh grade integrated language arts classroom at Helen Keller Middle School.

Alternative furniture is available to students in Karen Mangino’s seventh grade integrated language arts classroom at Helen Keller Middle School.

About author

By participating in the comments section of this site you are agreeing to our Privacy Policy and User Agreement

© HAN Network. All rights reserved. The Redding Pilot, 16 Bailey Avenue, Ridgefield, CT 06877

Designed by WPSHOWER

Powered by WordPress