Monday, December 8, 2014

Forming a True Middle School

Many of you may not be aware that Houston Academy has a strategic plan.  This plan, devised by a special committee of the Board of Trustees, outlines our goals for Houston Academy for a five-year period.  A major component of that plan is the establishment of a middle school. 

You might ask, “Why do we need a middle school?”

That’s a good question. After all, Houston Academy has been very successful with the lower school comprising 3-year-old preschool through 6th grade and the upper school comprising 7th grade through 12th grade.

The driving force behind the middle school movement, nationally, is the research-based idea that children ages 10-14 have a unique set of learning needs; therefore, those children need a school setting, curriculum, and culture that meet those unique needs.

If you’ve ever spent time with a group of middle schoolers, you will quickly see that they are, indeed, “unique.”  As one of our teachers, who is in love with the middle school child, likes to say, “They’re not real people yet! I love them, but they’re not real people!” One of my former colleagues aptly described the middle school children as “hormones with feet.”  I particularly love a description I read in the NAIS, Middle School Handbook:

You know them.

We all do.

They are the ones we hear in a much too near booth in the fast food restaurant, talking, laughing, eating so loudly they complicate our digestion. They are the ones who cause us to hurry to new seats in a movie theater just as the theater goes dark. They are the ones we brake for as they skateboard past us down a steep hill and through a busy traffic intersection. They are the ones playing comfortably with toy cars at one moment and dreaming of real ones at the next…

Middle schoolers are complex. Next to old people, early adolescents may suffer more age-based prejudice than any other group in society. Through the middle school years, the young person frequently wonders or asks, “Am I normal?” (Finks and Stanek 2008)

If you’ve had a middle school child in your home, you’ve seen it. One day, they talk to you eagerly, like a 40-year-old historian, and the next day they sulk alone in their room, listening to Rhapsody on their iPhone, while wondering why “nobody gets them.” My own middle school daughter describes herself as “angsty.”

Not surprisingly, the brain-based research tells us that our teaching methods and environment should be driven by students’ brain structure, growth, and development.  We would never think of teaching a kindergartner the same way we teach a fifth grader, because we understand that their brain development is at a very different place. Inexplicably, though, we seem to think it’s perfectly fine to teach a 7th grader the same way we teach a senior![1]

To successfully educate the middle school child, we also need to make sure we have a structure that reflects middle schoolers’ impulsivity and seemingly inherent need to test boundaries. Again, from a disciplinary perspective, it’s neither productive nor realistic to hold an 11-year-old to the same standards as a 19-year-old.

In short, the middle school child needs a guided and planned transition from childhood to the teen years and young adulthood. Early adolescence is an absolutely critical point in human development, and a carefully designed educational experience from grades 5-8 can have an indelible and lasting impact on our children and their future. Unfortunately, many of our schools in this country have not done a very good job structuring their middle schools. In fact, it’s probably fair to say that our middle schools have collectively failed our children.

The middle school at Houston Academy will be a model for the region. At the beginning of the year, we formed a volunteer faculty and administrative committee to study and plan for a middle school.  Before Thanksgiving, our committee took a trip to two quality independent schools: Altamont in Birmingham and the Montgomery Academy. Both schools have a middle school that encompasses grades 5-8.

Subsequently, the committee has decided to move forward in steps.  Our first step will be to reorganize the 5th and 6th grades employing a schedule that will allow the students to move between disciplines and have more class time in science, math, English, world and classical languages, and social studies.  This will NOT mean that we will denigrate the time for the arts; it will merely mean that we will rearrange the schedule to fit a middle school model.  In addition, we are looking to have a smooth transition in terms of expectations, responsibilities, and class structure from 5th grade to 8th grade. In other words, 5th graders will be handled differently from 6th graders. Our goal is to have this in place by next year. We also hope to have some athletic, co-curricular, and extracurricular activities for these grades. Concurrently, we are studying academic and social best practices of middle schools and working to integrate those ideas into our new middle school.

In the 2016-17 school year, we plan on fully integrating the 7th and 8th grade into the middle school.  Pending strong enrollment and a sound financial footing, we will hire a middle school head.

As we move forward, we will be dealing with the issues outlined below:

 I. What is our educational vision? Envision our middle school….
     A. What kind of education should we provide?
     B. What will our middle school provide that other schools don’t provide? What will our middle school provide for students that is NOT being provided under our current structure?
     C. What kinds of academic and social experiences do we want to give our students?
     D. What do we see implementing right away, in five years, in ten years?
II. What is our structure and curriculum?
     A. Day-to-Day operations
          1. How long will our classes be?
          2. How many classes in a day?
          3. When will the day start and end?
          4. How will lunch work?
          5. We will have an Advisory program. How will it work?
          6. How will we schedule teachers and students (structure and method)?
          7. What extracurricular activities will we offer? At what grades? What is our middle school athletic philosophy?
     B. Student Learning
          1. What is the objective of student learning?
          2. What do they need to know/be able to do?
          3. What criteria will we use to assess learning?
          4. How will students be tested?
          5. What constitutes successful completion of the middle school?
          6. How will curriculum be developed?
III. Write a statement of good practice in teaching
     A. What pedagogy will we use?
     B. Are we writing-based, collaborative-learning based, etc.?
IV. Facilities
     A. What physical facilities are necessary?
     B. Where will those facilities be?
     C. What will the facilities cost?

At first glance, this outline contains an overwhelming list of questions. On the other hand, this is incredibly exciting for both our teachers and our children.  We already offer the finest education in the Wiregrass. We have no educational peer, but we are going to be even better.  I can’t wait to see what we become as we evolve as a school of excellence!

[1] Actually, research suggests that male adolescence continues well into our mid-20s. I know most women will not find that fact surprising!