Villa Julie focuses on middle years

The Baltimore Sun

Middle school teachers are usually thought of in the teaching profession as having a unique quality that allows them to put up with -- sometimes even enjoy -- the students who are turning from sweet children to awkward teenagers.

But until yesterday no university or college had focused its undergraduate education majors on that period of life when kids need to learn a lot -- from how to write a paper to algebra -- and also get through those wacky, difficult years.

Villa Julie College announced yesterday that, beginning this fall, it will offer Maryland's first teacher preparation program designed for the middle grades.

Although Villa Julie's program might produce only a small number of graduates, it is seen as the beginning of a shift in teacher education and the first step in improving teaching in the middle schools, where students show the greatest dip in achievement.

Statewide, a third of all middle schools failed to meet federal and state standards for more than two years in a row. And more middle schools have a history of failure than elementary or high schools.

In part, state officials believe, the lagging achievement is a result of poor teacher preparation.

"We have our lowest performance in the middle school," said state schools chief Nancy S. Grasmick. "I don't think anyone can see us making progress until we really get the teacher piece straightened out."

Prompted by a change in the Maryland State Department of Education's teacher certification requirements, Villa Julie has moved to create a program for its undergraduates that will give them the choice of two tracks -- math and science or language arts and social studies.

Graduates will be certified to teach grades four through nine, giving them some flexibility to teach at the elementary or high school level.

Previously, education majors would be certified to teach elementary and middle or seventh through 12th grade. That meant that neither certification spent much time on grades six through eight.

Those with elementary and middle school certification learned the basics of teaching young children, while high school teachers concentrated on the content of whatever subject they wanted to teach.

But middle school teachers need to be well-versed in content and expert at understanding the development of students whose minds and bodies are going through profound changes. It is this period when students go from being concrete thinkers to abstract thinkers, from children to teenagers.

Grasmick said she believes other colleges and universities will follow with middle school concentrations.

Yesterday, Towson University's dean of the College of Education said through a spokesman that the university is in the planning stages for "something similar."

Once colleges and universities are turning out enough graduates with the middle-years focus, Grasmick said, the state could begin requiring a middle school certification for teachers entering the profession.

In developing its program, Deborah Kraft, chairwoman of Villa Julie's education department, said, the college worked closely with faculty at Pikesville Middle School in Baltimore County who helped write the descriptions for the new undergraduate classes.

Kraft said the college does not know how many students will apply for the program, but they expect to pull some students from the 90 freshman education majors as well as juniors and seniors who have not declared a major. "We think there is a pool out there that is really interested," she said.

Edward Collins, an 18-year-old freshman at Villa Julie, said he will sign up for the middle school program. "I think it is an amazing time, and I want to be part of that," he said. His love for that age goes back to his youth. "I remember how much I loved coming to school every day because of my teachers, and how exciting they made it."

The study skills he learned in those years have been the basis for all study habits since, he said.

Some of the Villa Julie students will have internships at Pikesville Middle School. Principal Maria Talarigo said they will have the opportunity to work in a diverse student body with some outstanding teachers.

Talarigo said all middle school students need teachers who love that age. "One day [the students] love you, and the next day they think you are the strangest person. ... They need a lot of nurturing, understanding and patience."

This is the time, she said, when children learn how to make good decisions. "All that is wrapped up into why this focus on the middle-level learner is so important."

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