Parents feel it instinctively, the difference even a year can make as their kids round the corner of tween innocence and head into the bumpy backroads of adolescence.
Puyallup mom Vera West puts it this way: “In fifth grade, they’re still watching ‘Hannah Montana.’ But by middle school, they want to start watching ‘Jersey Shore.’ ”
West was surprised how much her daughter, now an eighth- grader at Kalles Junior High, changed during her sixth-grade year. She believes sixth-graders should make that change as elementary students, like they do currently in Puyallup – not as middle schoolers.
“You want them to be emotionally ready,” she said.
Students in both the Puyallup and Bethel school districts could one day take that step a year earlier. Both districts are studying whether to switch from their junior high grade configurations to a middle school model.
Spanaway-based Bethel launched its study last year. A committee of community members and educators has heard from principals in other school districts that have already made the switch.
Puyallup will start work on the issue with the help of an advisory committee scheduled to begin meeting in October.
School boards in both districts would have to approve the change, if that’s what their committees recommend.
MORE COMMON MODEL
Both Puyallup and Bethel currently educate kids in elementary schools through grade six, in junior highs for grades seven through nine, and then in high school for grades 10 through 12.
But the middle school model is by far more common among larger school districts nationwide. This model most often offers elementary school through grade five, middle school for grades six through eight, and high school for grades nine and above.
Of Western Washington school districts with more than 10,000 students, only six – including Bethel and Puyallup – still maintain junior high schools. The others are Lake Washington and Northshore in King County, and Central Kitsap and South Kitsap in Kitsap County.
Puyallup and Bethel are the second- and third-largest school districts in Pierce County, respectively.
The junior high, popularized during the 1920s and 1930s, was originally compartmentalized, with an emphasis on separate subjects and specialization among teachers. The goal was to become a miniature high school, right down to the football team and the cheerleading squad.
‘WHOLE CHILD’ FOCUS
That was the prevailing model until the middle school concept – with its “whole child” and interdisciplinary team-teaching focus – developed in the 1960s, and began to take hold in the decades that followed. Tacoma made the change from grade seven-through-nine junior highs to grade six-through-eight middle schools in the mid-1980s.
Other districts operate under their own models. Students in the 5,000-student University Place School District, for example, attend primary school through grade four, intermediate school in grades five through seven, junior high in grades eight and nine, and high school beginning in grade 10.
Which model is best for kids? That depends on who’s talking.
Cindy Sims, parent of a seventh-grader at Puyallup’s Ballou Junior High School, worries that a switch that sends ninth-graders to high schools would create more overcrowding at already packed high schools.
Chris Lee, whose daughter is in eighth grade at Kalles, said he can see both sides of the argument. He understands parents who worry whether sixth-graders are mature enough to leave the cocoon of elementary school. But he also agrees that sending ninth-graders to high school could eliminate redundancy and potentially save money.
Kelly Osborn, parent of a Kalles eighth-grader, said there’s another option that her older son went through in California: a middle school just for seventh and eighth grade. She believes ninth-graders “need to be in high school, earning high school credits.”
But she also agrees that sixth-graders may be too young for a school that assigns them multiple teachers for different subjects.
Her son’s two–year middle school was “more of a level playing field,” Osborn said. “I felt like he had a really positive experience.”
Osborn’s daughter Amanda said she’s hitting her stride in her second year at Kalles.
“I like eighth grade a lot better,” she said. “I know more people in my grade. I know where I’m going at school. I feel like I know what I’m doing.”
Educators cite advantages and disadvantages to both systems. Most agree that the middle years – however they’re defined – are crucial times in a child’s educational life.
These years are often where schools “lose” kids in key areas like math and literacy. Behavior problems can escalate. Students who fall behind enter high school unprepared for its added challenges.
Educators say one of the biggest academic issues under the junior high model occurs in ninth grade. To meet state graduation requirements, these students need to earn high school credits. But if they’re not in high school, educators say, it’s a tough message to get across. When kids fail ninth grade classes, it means they must work that much harder to catch up and graduate on time.
Some educators say kids who enter high school in ninth grade have a clearer understanding that ninth grade counts. And those who want to accelerate their learning can do so more easily in a high school setting.
But even in middle schools, academic concerns have surfaced in recent years. Some critics accuse modern middle schools of trying to mimic junior highs or high schools.
“There’s a fundamental tension in the way middle school is being played out today,” said Fred Hamel, an associate professor of education at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma. “We want (students) in a sort of protected space. It’s a unique time of social, emotional and academic growth. But we are also concerned about them being behind academically, so we are pushing this academic model at them.”
Santo Pino, a consultant with the National Middle School Association and a former middle school principal, said schools should focus on the development needs of kids in the middle grades. And that goes beyond the stereotype of raging hormones.
These students need flexible class schedules, he said. “They don’t do well sitting still,” he added. “You can’t lecture for 45 minutes.”
Educators say kids in the middle are sorting out who they are, so they tend to be self-absorbed. They are reaching out to their peer group, but they need a safe home base. Segregating students in classes and at lunch time by grade level – the practice in many middle schools – can help prevent bullying and ease parental worries.
The middle school association has outlined what it believes are best practices for middle schools. They include interdisciplinary teaching teams in which a team of math, language arts and social studies teachers share and get to know a core group of students.
Middle schools don’t hold all the answers, however.
A 2007 study from Duke University found that sixth-graders in North Carolina middle schools had more discipline problems when compared to sixth-graders who remained in elementary school. A study of California schools found that grade configurations did not appear to have a significant influence on state test scores.
And Pino said that some school districts, particularly in the Eastern United States, have come full circle. They’ve returned to the grade configuration that was popular a century ago: elementary schools for kindergarten through eighth grade, with a separate high school beginning at grade nine.
COSTS TO CONSIDER
After months of study, Bethel Assistant Superintendent Mike Brophy believes the grade reconfiguration committee he leads has more to learn.
“Our school board has made it clear,” he said. “This is not a decision that has already been made.”
In addition to academics, the committee and the school board will consider the costs of transportation changes, as well as changes in sports leagues and other extracurricular activities.
The district must also consider where students would be housed under a new configuration.
“With our sixth junior high (Liberty) going online, we have more space,” Brophy said.
Spanaway Lake High School has also been remodeled and now has more student capacity, he said.
The Bethel committee could report back to the school board in December or January.
In Puyallup, the work is just getting under way.
Superintendent Tony Apostle said the committee will look at a variety of structures and options. He said the district was initially focused on studying a middle school that covered grades six through eight, but that “if we discover there is a better option for us, it will certainly be considered.”
Deputy Superintendent Debra Aungst said the committee will look at research on the advantages and disadvantages of each model, along with the implications for curriculum, athletics and facilities.
Debbie Cafazzo: 253-597-8635