Middle schools falling out of style?

Lately I have noticed that a great number of new schools opening in New York City are configured as “secondary schools,” serving grades 6 through 12.  In fact, it is almost difficult these days to come across a brand new middle school.  As an educator trained in middle school education, certified to teach grades 5-9, and a proponent of the middle school movement–which advocates for schools to specialize in this particular age group, because of its unique needs–I am curious about the rationale for combining middle school with high school. I looked for information on this trend, but found surprisingly little.

Recently, I spoke to a principal who is starting a 6-12 school this year in Staten Island for new immigrants.  I asked her about her perspective on the benefits of a school serving grades 6-12. She said, quite reasonably, that the benefit is continuity. When you have a middle school that functions well, she said, one of the downsides is that you have to send your students on to a high school with a totally different program that usually doesn’t build coherently on the work done at the middle school level.

When I used to teach seventh and eighth grade in a middle school, I would become very attached to my students after the 2 years I’d spend as their ELA teacher.  I was always nervous about sending them off to their respective high schools, never knowing how they would fare.  I was especially nervous since most of them were ELL’s, and the treatment of ELL’s can be quite inconsistent from school to school. After that experience, I was excited about moving to the 6-12 school, where I’ve taught for the past three years.

I have had opportunity to reflect on some of the pros and cons of this configuration.  One challenge for my school was that it started with both a sixth and a ninth grade and added a grade at each level every year until it reached 6-12.  The middle school and high school were being developed simultaneously, and this rate of growth was challenging to keep up with, according to the founding principal.  Ideally, in a 6-12 school, the high school would be created as an extension of an already well-defined middle school. Years later, the middle and high school levels of my school have some distinct characteristics, but they and the students blur together at times, being housed all on the same floor, using the same uniform, sharing hallway space, deans, guidance counselors, cafeteria space, etc.

One benefit of 6-12 schools mentioned in this Pittsburg Gazette article is that, “Educators said high school students can be tutors or role models for middle-grade students, but they stressed that boundaries must be observed…Administrators of 6-12 schools say the structure offers special opportunities for learning, provided officials remember to meet the discrete needs of two student groups — pubescent, rambunctious middle-grade children and high school teens preparing for adulthood, college and careers.”

I have seen high school students wield both positive and negative influences on my middle school students.  High schoolers are more mature and can handle a certain amount of freedom that most middle school students cannot.  High school teachers interact with their students differently than middle school teachers do, and sometimes this can be confusing for middle school students to observe.  A consistent message about what’s appropriate school-wide is not always possible to communicate due to the differences in these two age groups.  But space makes it hard to establish a firm boundary between the two.  An eighth grade female student spoke to me once this year about how the presence of high school boys can be a distraction for middle school girls.  The dating expectations are not the same from middle school to high school, but some students do date across this line anyway.

One the other hand, some of the best moments I’ve seen have been when high school students do serve as positive role models.  A school social worker has trained a group of tenth graders as mentors.  They begin mentoring students as sixth graders and continue to mentor them them through the eighth grade. This year, we had a group of college-bound high school seniors talk to our 8th graders about their high school experiences and offer advice.  We separated our students by gender, and high school girls spoke to middle school girls, while high school boys spoke to middle school boys.  It was fantastic.  Afterward, our eighth graders thanked us profusely for the opportunity.

I see many positive opportunities that arise from the 6-12 configuration, but I remain committed to the needs of middle school students. To that end, I’d like to see more research and discourse on the best practices for this model, since it is becoming so prevalent.

I’m curious if any readers have experience working or sending their children to a 6-12 school.  If so, please share!

[image credit: http://isles.org/main/wp-content/uploads/2009/02/iyi-060.jpg]

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