Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Time of Change: Transition to a Middle School

Two years ago, Arlington Jr/Sr High School embraced the "middle school" philosophy.   We are still a 7-12 building but grades 7-8 are treated in what we feel is a more developmentally responsive way.  We wanted to makes some changes that would benefit our students.  We have now completed 3 semesters in this new system.  During this time, we have only had one student fail one course.  Prior to this system, we would regularly have students fail courses. The data is beginning to prove that this system has increased academic achievement.

Challenges of a small 7-12 school
1. Shared staff-We share music, art, PE, K-12.  Of all of the teachers who teach 7th and 8th grade, one teaches only Middle School.  The rest teach at least one high school section.
2. Scheduling-Our staff was completely shared prior to the change to a middle school.  Many classes are offered only once.  This makes a schedule difficult to create.  All of the juniors and seniors that want to take sociology, as an example, have to take it 5th period during the first semester.  This really limits what classes can be taken and offered for all students in grades 7-12.  As we changed to a middle school, our concern was that by blocking off the morning for middle school core classes, this might negatively impact our high school students abilities to get into their chosen classes.
3. Difference in needs of 7th graders and 12th graders-12 year olds are nervous about using lockers for the first time.  The 18 year olds are worried about their cars, varsity sports, and graduation.
4. High School mentality-We hired most of our teachers to teach "high school."  The administration were also called High School Principal and High School Assistant Principal.  The focus can easily be on the upper grades.  Sometimes teachers can get "stuck" teaching middle schoolers and once they get seniority in their department they move "up" to teach high school classes.  For us, the problem was more structural than attitude.  In our structure,we had few opportunities to discuss 7th and 8th grade student needs.

Changes
1. Creation of an Interdisciplinary Team-Our Middle School team meets every day.  Our Middle School core teachers teach both 7th and 8th grade.  We only have 40 students per grade.  Team allows teachers to discuss middle school specific issues.  Here is our schedule of topics: M-Lesson Plans-find out what days others are giving tests/quizzes homework, T-Student issues, W-Interdisciplinary Unit discussion, Th-Professional Development, F-Homeroom Activities and Misc.
2. Creation of the Eagle Success Program-Whenever I present at a conference, this is what always gets the most interest.  I will do a separate blog about this on a different day.  ESP is a system that doesn't allow student to not do their homework.
3. Creation of Academic Labs-Students either go to a guided study hall, Math Lab, or English Lab for 30 minutes.  This is based on academic need assigned by the teachers.  However, we have several students who go to labs on their own.
4. Flexible Scheduling-we block out periods 2-6 for core academic time.  If we need to make a change an have a long period for science to meet, we can simply shorten other classes.  Math-Science meet at the same time and Eng-Soc St meet at the same time so we can make simple changes.  We also can drop homeroom or lab.  We can lengthen either homeroom for a day.
5. Interdisciplinary Units-We have amazing, creative teachers who have done some really neat things.  They create an interest in school by having fun with these units.  We begin these units with videos that the teachers make.  I will write an entire blog on these at a later date.
6. No Zero Policy-zeroes kill a students grade.  The hardest part for some teachers was how will we motivate students to complete work?  After doing this now for 5 years, I can tell you we have less missing work now than before.  Students who struggle in school are not motivated by zeroes.  They tend to be more motivated by social time.  Therefore we created the Eagle Success Program to help students complete their homework.
7. Structure of Administration/Focus on Middle School students-We created a Middle School Coordinator that acts as the administrator in charge of the Middle School.
8. Middle School Lunch-Grades K-4 eat first, then 9-12, then 5-8.  In the old system, we simply had Lower Elementary Lunch and then 2 high school lunches.  We would have 5th graders and Seniors in the same lunch and this was less than ideal.
9. Development of Living Above the Line-this is our discipline system designed for middle school students.

These are some of the changes we have made that have shifted focus to the 7th and 8th graders.  The structure of the buildings don't matter.  With some creativity, positive changes can be made and a middle school philosophy can be implemented anywhere that you have students grades 4-9.

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