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Tailoring learning to tough middle years

The way Isreal Haggerty, 14, sees it, teachers in his school have changed.

They would rather pull information out of a student than accept "I don't know" for an answer. They use humor, which makes concepts easier to remember. And sometimes they put him in front of the class to teach a lesson. "It helps you understand it way more because you are the one asking the questions," he says.

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Isreal might not be aware of a myriad of other changes at Brooklyn Park Middle School: the collaboration among teachers, the new discipline or the focus on making students take more responsibility.

But these changes are at the heart of a middle school reform movement that is spreading across the country. School districts are confronting the dips in academic achievement that are evident at nearly all middle schools - from the very top schools in affluent neighborhoods to the lowest-performing city schools.

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A Maryland task force, studying what to do to improve the state's middle schools, is looking for solutions. In the next month, the state is expected to release its first recommendations.

Education experts say they pretty much know what works in the middle grades. That includes some of the same practices that work in other grades: good teaching and a good curriculum. But what makes middle school difficult is that 11- to 14-year-olds are growing rapidly, are impulsive and have short attention spans.

"You have middle schools filled with middle-schoolers - that is the problem," said Ilene Swirnow, the state's director of middle school initiatives and a former principal who says she loves the age group. "I think everyone knows, in general, what good instruction looks like. But to really make it unique to middle school, that is the piece that becomes more difficult."

For more than a decade, educators have noted how scores on tests seem to slide once students hit middle school. In the spring of 2006, for instance, 73 percent of fifth-graders passed Maryland's state math test while only 55 percent of eighth-graders passed. In reading, the decline was not as great but still obvious.

The Maryland results mirror the nationwide trend on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which tests students across the country. Fewer than a third of eighth-graders nationally can read or write proficiently.

Larger numbers of students, particularly in urban districts, are failing ninth grade and being held back, creating a bulge in the population of ninth-graders. And students who repeat ninth grade are more likely to drop out.

Troubling, too, is that 77 Maryland middle schools - one-third of all middle schools in the state - have not met federal standards for two or more years in a row. That group includes seven in Baltimore that the state argues should be taken over by an outside operator.

"When you look across the state, even in high-performing districts, you still have middle schools struggling," said state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick.

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Four years ago, Principal Raymond Bibeault set out to improve Brooklyn Park, where 40 percent of the students are poor enough to be eligible for federally subsidized lunches and 22 percent are African-American. The school was never considered one of the worst in the state, but it did have a history of below-average performance and not meeting state standards.

In reading, 13 percent of eighth-graders read satisfactorily in 2001 at a time when 70 percent was the standard, and the achievement gap between African-Americans and whites was large.

But Bibeault has turned things around, largely by empowering teachers to be more creative in the ways they approach their students. He also gave them time to work together so they could improve both their methods and the lessons they taught.

He created full-time math and language arts department chairmen whose sole job is to help teachers improve their teaching methods and to get all the teachers of a subject to talk together. Instead of grousing about difficult kids and parents at faculty meetings, teachers are now talking about creative ways to bring students who are behind up to grade level and take other students into advanced work.

In the past three years, the number of students taking Algebra I has doubled, and despite all the newcomers, the pass rate on the High School Assessment has held steady at about 86 percent. The assessment exam can be offered after seventh grade.

"I think the key is to move teachers away from the isolation of the classroom," Bibeault said. "We are much more collaborative."

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The staff tries to base decisions solely on what helps students learn best, said Sue Sergeant, a department chairwoman for language arts.

When a girl balled up a test she was taking, threw it on the floor and walked out of class, the teacher asked Sergeant whether he should let the student retake the test. Sergeant asked him, "Are you measuring behavior or are you measuring standards?"

The girl retook the test.

Isreal Haggerty notices that teaching has changed in his classrooms, but so do others. Teacher Samantha Carew-Tyree says the school has gone from being led by the administration to being led by teachers. That lets teachers respond better.

The other day, for instance, the language arts teachers all taught poetry. Some students were having trouble and others did particularly well, so the three teachers divided the kids based on how they were doing.

The result, Carew-Tyree said, was that some students who normally aren't exposed to high-level classes were pushed, and students who needed more time received it.

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Brooklyn Park is helped by the fact that it has a small number of students, fewer than 600, and that the facility is newly renovated with colorful hallways and large windows that let in lots of light.

The school also embarked on an innovative program to have students take more responsibility for their performance and to get parents more involved. In middle schools, parents don't usually show up for a teacher conference unless their child is having trouble. And when the parents arrive, they face "this firing squad of teachers and not a child in sight," said Sergeant.

Brooklyn Park asks students to pick out a collection of work to show their parents and to grade themselves on how well they are doing at paying attention, participating in class and completing homework. When parents arrive on the designated day or evening, they sit down with their child and go over the portfolio and then look at the child's report card. The students and parents are then asked, with the input of a teacher, to come up with ways the student can improve.

In one case, the mother of a girl who was getting straight D's turned to the teacher and said she felt helpless. They thought together and decided that the girl would ask three questions in class every day. She did, and her grades went up to C's and B's.

A year after implementing the conferences, the school began to see the achievement gap between African-American and white students shrink, although they can't determine the reason for that success. Last year, the school met federal standards for the first time. Scores have risen in reading and changed drastically in math. In 2003, only 24 percent of eighth-graders passed the state math test, compared with 49 percent last spring.

After taking a back seat to high schools, the middle grades have recently become the hot topic in education. "I have noticed, in the past six or eight months, mounting attention," said Deborah Kasak, executive director of the National Forum to Accelerating Middle Grades Reform.

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Maryland's middle school task force will look at a variety of issues, but the first recommendations are expected to address the training of teachers. Grasmick has said she believes that too many middle school teachers don't have the necessary expertise - both in the subject they are teaching and in how to teach adolescents.

Most middle school teachers have been certified to teach in elementary and middle or middle and high schools. The state could require a certification specific to middle school for all new teachers who want to teach in the middle grades.

Brooklyn Park still has a way to go in reforming its school, the teachers and principal say, particularly in making the course work more challenging. Bibeault describes the process of improving his school as almost organic. "There is no cookbook" for improving middle schools, he said.

"I think it is just a lot more complicated at the middle level," said Hayes Mizell, distinguished senior fellow at the National Staff Development Council. "You have to be a lot more thoughtful about your strategies and which buttons you are going to try to push."

liz.bowie@baltsun.com


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