Categories: Feature Story
      Date: Sep  1, 2007
     Title: The Middle Years

Students must tackle harder challenges as they leave elementary school

By Tammy DiDomenico  

Thousands of parents across Onondaga County will watch their kids head to a different school this fall: middle school.

Thousands of parents across Onondaga County will watch their kids head to a different school this fall: middle school.

However, the children in the neighborhood of the H.W. Smith School face a different challenge: two more years in the same building. Smith is the eighth school in the Syracuse district to switch to a kindergarten through eighth grade level; previously it stopped at sixth grade.

"We are so excited," says Sharon Birnkrant, lead administrator for H.W. Smith. "I don't think there is any one perfect way to address the middle school years. But we are going to give this a try."

Eliminating middle school altogether is just one of the ways Onondaga County's school districts approach the middle years. It's a time filled with transformation, when children start maturing physically and emotionally, and begin to face the greater independence and temptations of adulthood.

At the same time, students, their parents, and teachers are confronted with a host of changes accompanying the mid-level transition--from the increased number of standardized tests to the stress of changing classes quickly while hauling books and remembering a new locker combination.

What's in store for the children approaching both adolescence and the new, more grown-up academic demands of middle or junior high school? Administrators, teachers and parents in Syracuse, North Syracuse, Jamesville-DeWitt, East Syracuse-Minoa and Central Square school districts described some strategies they use in helping keep students on track for success in academia and in life.

Many local school districts remain loyal to the tradition of moving students to middle school or junior high at the end of their elementary years, a practice popularized in the 1960s. Advocates of specialized middle-level education stress the unique characteristics of young adolescents and the benefits of tailoring educational settings to their needs.

In the North Syracuse Central School district, students attend middle schools for grades five, six and seven, and the junior high for grades eight and nine. It's one of the few districts with that configuration.

"It isn't the best scenario possible, but this is a big district, and we have to make the best use of the resources we have," says Constance Turose, principal at North Syracuse Junior High School. "We know that this is a time when kids need stability, so we try to use a lot of group activities to establish a sense of community."

No matter what the grade configuration, mid-level success is largely dependent on the quality of teachers, administrators, and counselors, says Gwen McKinnon, director of middle-level education for the Syracuse City School District. "There has been a lot of discussion about mid-level education and (administrators) have been looking at a lot of different models, but the real issue for mid-level students is instruction," McKinnon says. "It's what happens in the classroom that's key. Communication between parents and teachers plays a big part, too. Students need a lot of support during these years--at home, in school and from the community."

Staying Connected
Educators stress that the middle-level years are no time to let up on parental involvement. "Kids are kids," says Turose of North Syracuse Junior High. "You have to be a bit clever in how you approach it. Recognizing the positive is important at this age; notice when they are being helpful and they just may keep doing it.

"When students get to middle school and junior high, some parents figure, 'They're not little kids anymore; I'll step back.' We could always stand for more parental involvement," Turose says. "Our teachers strive for ongoing communication with parents."

A Risky Age
Many parents feel anxious about the approach of adolescence, a phase that coincides with the middle school and junior high transition.

"Parents hear a lot of the problems that are common to this age group, and they are concerned," Turose says. "This is a risky time in students' lives. They're curious about smoking and drinking; and a frightening number of students have already had experience with sex. We do our best to empower them to make better choices."

Teri Arcuri and her husband, Sal, got a quick lesson in such issues when they sent their home-schooled daughter to North Syracuse Junior High last year. At age 13, Elizabeth Arcuri became an eighth-grader in a much more distracting setting than she was used to.

"I had my concerns, initially," Teri Arcuri says. "But Elizabeth has a good head on her shoulders. She was ready."

A strong relationship with her guidance counselor helped Elizabeth make a successful shift to a public junior high. "She met with him all the time and he always made her feel comfortable," Teri Arcuri says. "He always listened."

Support staff, especially guidance counselors, play an increasing role in students' lives during the middle-level years. At Pine Grove Middle School in East Syracuse, students meet their guidance counselors in March, before their arrival at the school.

"The role of the guidance staff is very different in middle school than it is in high school," principal Lee Carulli explains. "This is someone a student meets with quite often. Students are assigned a counselor, and they stay with that counselor every year they are here."

Pine Grove also has an administrator assigned to each grade. The administrator assigned to the new sixth-graders will remain with that class until they head to high school.

Hopes and Fears
No matter when students leave the cozier environment of elementary school for the bigger middle or junior high school, there are fears to be confronted.

"For kids, it's the lockers," says Jamesville-DeWitt Middle School principal Jeff Craig, laughing. "I would say that's the biggest concern for students coming into the building."

Students love the idea of a private space to stash their gear but dread the thought of forgetting a combination and being late for class. For the last few years, Pine Grove in East Syracuse has set aside the day before school starts for sixth-graders to visit the building and practice using their locks. Other schools hold pre-middle-school orientations for incoming students as well.

Making friends with students from other district elementary schools also causes concern for new middle-schoolers. "We do our best to make sure there is a good mix of boys and girls from each school in each fifth-grade class," says Jamesville-DeWitt's principal Craig. "There will always be at least one person from your (old) school in your class."

Pine Grove has used a peer mentoring program to help incoming students for the past several years. "The sixth-graders have heard rumors of middle school, so it helps to have someone who they can ask, someone who has been through it," Carulli says.

Since they often accommodate students from two or more district elementary schools, middle school buildings can seem huge. Getting lost also ranks high on new students' list of fears. Whenever possible, administrators try to keep mid-level classes contained to a single wing, at least for the first year.

Even the teaching style at most middle schools differs from what students are used to. Instead of spending most of the day in a single room with one teacher, students join "teams" or "houses." Students work with an assigned group of teachers and often have to move from class to class several times a day.

"Every 40 minutes, they're moving," Carulli says of his students. "For some students, it is a little bit tough to get used to. But our sixth-grade teachers, and the support staff, they expect that. There are people here to help students with any concerns."

At Grant Middle School in Syracuse, sixth-grade counselor Michelle Bergamo has offered a four-day mini-summer camp for incoming students for the past four years. "It's a big transition and we want them to be successful," she says.

High Tech
As children mature into young adults, educators expect certain problems. Emergent technology, however, has provided new ways for kids to distract one another from academic issues. Many schools now regulate students' endless fascination with text messaging, iPods and other gadgets. But spreading gossip about other students through e-mail or text messages--known as "cyberbullying"--has also caused problems at Jamesville-DeWitt and other schools. Craig says aside from the distractions technology can bring into the classroom, its misuse has hampered some young people's ability to build and maintain friendships.

"The things kids are doing haven't changed too much. It's the technology that's used and the rapid transfer of information that's the problem," Craig says. "This is new territory for all of us, so we're trying to educate not just our students, but the parents, too. We have to give parents the tools they need so they can be aware of this."

Testing, Testing
Typically, academic performance by children entering middle school declines from their work in elementary school, according to scores on tests in reading and math required as part of the No Child Left Behind Act. Administrators use a variety of methods to combat a drop in academic performance.

"With math, we're teaching students in more of a research-based style," says Jamesville-DeWitt's Craig. "That's paid great dividends."

At Pine Grove, connection is the key. "Students tend to perform better when they feel more involved with their school," Carulli says. "Studies have shown that the entry year of middle school and high school are the most difficult. The more you can make the entry a smooth one, the better chance students have to get started on the right path."

There is no denying that the academic challenges increase during those middle years. Parents complain that the emphasis on college preparation begins too early, and teachers say there is less opportunity to engage students with spontaneity.

Chris Walsleben, a science teacher at Central Square Middle School, says some of her brightest students have broken into tears over the rigorous testing that's now part of the middle school experience. Teachers do all they can to get students through the tests and prepare them for the rigors of high school level work. "We can predict that a 'B' student will go down a letter grade when they get into high school," she says. "If we don't get them on track in middle school, ninth grade will break them."

Students who will remain at H.W. Smith in Syracuse for seventh and eighth grades instead of going on to Levy Middle School may have the benefit of familiar territory, but academic standards will be just as demanding as those at any middle school, says Birnkrant. She believes a more challenging academic experience is necessary for all mid-level students.

"They are going to know this is not baby stuff anymore. We will expect high achievement from our students, and we will accept nothing less," she says. "If you set the goals for students high, they will work hard to meet those goals." That's good news for Ed Luban, parent of an H.W. Smith seventh-grader, and a member of Parents for Public Schools of Syracuse. Luban worries that remaining among elementary-level students will not adequately prepare his son for high school.

McKinnon admits that this is perhaps the Syracuse district's biggest challenge as it expands some schools to include seventh and eighth grades, and she knows it's a concern for parents and administrators nationwide. "I want to make sure students in a K-8 setting are getting a true middle school experience," she says. "By that I mean the sports and leadership opportunities, extracurricular activities."

Different Demands
Teachers at middle schools must figure out how to convey knowledge to growing adolescents who resist authority, are prone to mood swings, crave personal freedom, but who need boundaries and discipline.

When Carulli arrived at Pine Grove three years ago, he made some changes. "I had taught at the high school level for 24 years, but I immediately saw how different the needs of middle school students were," he says. "Their bodies and minds are rapidly changing. Working with them is unpredictable, and a lot of fun, but it is also kind of scary because this is the time in their lives when they are making a lot of choices for themselves, yet they need the structure."

During his first year, Carulli hired 12 new teachers. "I made a real point of hiring people who I thought really wanted to be with middle school students," he says. "It was like starting fresh. When you are in something together, you're working toward common goals. That is key."

Many local middle and junior high schools use some form of team teaching. Students are grouped according to ability and often attend classes with the same young people for the duration of their middle school experience. Teams of teachers are assigned to work with those students.

Students benefit from this structure because issues with students--whether academic, social or behavioral--can be targeted and addressed more aggressively, Craig says. Ideally, teachers can discuss and devise solutions that can be reinforced by all members of the team, in all aspects of the curriculum.

Administrators have good reason to put so much emphasis on keeping students engaged, focused and connected to their schools. When students can't cope with the demands of middle school, they are more likely to start thinking about dropping out when they get to high school, says Turose. "About 8 percent of our student population is at risk of dropping out. It's a relatively small number, but we do all we can to keep them in school."

Birnkrant will look to her students for clues as to whether combining elementary and middle school at H.W. Smith was the right decision.

"There are upsides and downsides to a change like this, but I do know numbers make a difference," she says. "I have to hope that knowing these students as well as we do will only benefit them. We know what the behavior issues are with the older students--that and the problem of them turning off to learning. But we're not going to let that happen."