I’ve had the good fortune these past couple of years, of working in middle schools with staff and students, helping them advance their students’ performance. These schools accepted the opportunity to join other Middle Schools in Michigan and Kentucky in the federally funded i3 Grant (Investing in Innovation) Project awarded to the National Forum to Accelerate Middle Grades. There are six schools in each state participating in these efforts and they are receiving support in the form of on-site coaching, MAMSE membership, seminars on middle-level education, attendance in the National Forums annual conference in Washington D.C., and reimbursement for some expenses.
Among the support provided to the schools was a survey, completed by staff, once a year, measuring their perceptions of where they saw their school performing vis-a-vis the Schools To Watch (STW) Rubric. The Rubric represents those strategies, procedures, and policies of high performing middle schools. It is divided into four Domains: Academic Excellence, Developmental Responsiveness, Social Equity, and Organizational Structures and Processes.
Academically Excellent Schools “challenge all students to use their minds well.” When schools are Responsive to students’ Developmental needs, “they are sensitive to the unique developmental challenges of early adolescence.” Schools are Socially Equitable when they are, “democratic and fair, providing all students with high quality resources, teachers, and supports.” When a school has it’s Organizational Structures and Procedures in place to support excellent performance, one finds a shared vision, shared leadership, collaboration, and a professional learning community focused on increasing student achievement.
Middle School staff began their journey over 2 years ago, by self-rating on the STW rubric, across all 4 domains, then developing an action plan based on this baseline data. What I found fascinating and ultimately reaffirming, was that every school, that I was engaged with, began their work in response to their ratings in the Developmentally Responsive Domain. First, acknowledging that middle level students (age 10-14) learn differently than their elementary and high school friends and siblings, they began by reviewing the developmental research on young adolescents and taking those unique learning needs as a starting point for planning changes in classroom instruction, increasing electives, providing intervention, reviewing their discipline procedures, and attending to the social and emotional needs, a key to success with middle level student success.
Nearly all the schools began by adding what’s referred to as an ”Advisory” period to their schedule. While the length of this period and the number of times per week varied, all of these advisory periods focused on developing relationships with every single student in the school. Adults, in many cases, “drafted” a group of students and worked on building community and connections so that every student in the school had at least one adult that they could go to in times of need. Some buildings worked from a curriculum, others simply identified needs within the school and addressed those through Advisory. I witnessed a climate and culture change in each of these building such that students began to feel secure and supported. You could see it and hear it in the hallways and classrooms. Referrals and suspensions dropped, as the relationships allowed adults to “see” problems brewing and intervene before issues escalated. By recognizing the developmental fact that middle level students often feel isolated and alone (they are the only person in the world experiencing what is happening to them), the schools in response, used Advisory to build relationships and community.
In the classroom, teachers recognized the fact that young adolescents must move and regularly interact with their peers. As a teacher, you can either battle your whole career trying to get middle schoolers to stop talking, or, you can build lessons that have them talking about content. If they must interact as a developmental necessity, you build cooperative learning opportunities into their day. Student movement is now planned into hour long lessons with the use of centers, labs, Kagan strategies and “brain breaks”.
Recognizing student’s developmental need for choice, schools increased elective opportunities, provided students with varying ways to demonstrate mastery, and scheduled daily intervention and enrichment.
In the schools that attended successfully to the developmental needs of their young adolescents, academic performance improved – sometimes remarkably. Once their students began to feel safe, secure, and a part of the community, they began to take learning risks, and, as we know, most learning comes from revisiting and repairing our mistakes.
I credit the teachers and principals for the wisdom in recognizing where to begin their journey in building a high performing middle school, and valuing the knowledge that has been accumulated over the last several decades that informs successful work with 10-14 year olds.
I suppose I’ve always known that students won’t learn in environments where they either feel threatened or not valued, or at the very least misunderstood. But my experience with the staff and students in this i3 Project just absolutely confirmed for me that, if your intention is to increase a student’s academic performance (at any age), you are best served by beginning with a close inspection of the foundation you’re building on – are their developmental needs being met?