2007-03-23 / Editorial/Opinion

From the Editor's Desk

Closing Middle Schools, Part II: A Redesign Plan That Worked - Up To A Point
Commentary By Howard Schwach

Commentary By Howard Schwach

Middle school students, most of whom are 11 to 14 years old, need more than a traditional elementary school can give them.

Even the physical plant of most elementary schools works against a proper education for kids that age. The gyms are too small, the baskets too low. The lunchroom is built for toddlers and pre-teens, not for older students. The rooms are too small for 35 middle school-sized desks. The students are too large, too manic at that age to mix easily with other kids aged five and up. It just doesn't work on a physical level, and it doesn't work on a pedagogical level either.

The first junior high school in Rockaway, JHS 198 in Arverne, was still two years away from opening when I graduated from the K-8 program at PS 106 in 1953 I went directly from that school to Far Rockaway High School.

I don't remember much about my last few years at PS 106, except that it was a small school in what was then a small winter community and the "upper-graders" ruled the roost.

After I came out of the Navy in 1965, I taught for one semester at Junior High School 198, a grade 7-9 school that was highly successful because the students came from middle and upper-middle class families who valued education over almost anything else.

At the time, the paradigm was pretty well set. You went to elementary school from kindergarten to grade 6, junior high school for grades 7 to 9 and then to high school for grades 10-12.

It is interesting now to note that the move from the K-8 model to the junior high school model was done for a political reason - to foster desegregation. Most of the elementary schools were neighborhood schools and in Rockaway, that meant reasonably segregated, with all-white schools at either end and all-black schools in the middle. The thought was to move the younger kids out of their neighborhood schools and into integrated, centralized junior high schools. The move was not predicated on an educational imperative, but I always thought that it was a good idea even if the rationale was flawed.

Only one school in Rockaway was an intermediate school, which had grades 6 to 8, and that was Intermediate School 53 in Far Rockaway, I wound up teaching there in 1981 when I came back to the school after editing the Weekly Reader publications in Connecticut for about nine years.

That school, which was to become my "home" for the next 16 years, was a school of extremes. It held the largest Bilingual program in the district, one of the largest special education units, a six-class Advanced Learning Institute and lots of classes full of disaffected students.

The Public Law that I wrote about last week, PL 94-142, had a devastating impact on the school, forcing those special ed students and other disaffected students into close proximity with the rest of the school.

The reading scores began to drop and the number of violent incidents began to rise.

At the time, all of the students followed the "high school model." That meant they each saw seven or eight different teachers each day. It didn't seem to be working, and District 27, under the leadership of Superintendent Brenda Isaacs, moved to the "Carnegie Middle School Model," one that I think had some limited success given all the other problems that the schools were facing at the time.

The plan was to break the large junior high schools and middle schools (most had more than 1,000 students) into smaller units that would "nurture" the younger students more than a high school program ever could.

Each of the middle schools (to use the generic term) in District 27 - three in Rockaway and three on the mainland - set up a committee of administrators, teachers and parents to meet and to visit other programs in the tri-state region to see how the Carnegie Program worked in the real world. They were impressed.

During the second year, those committees were increased and the year culminated in a full-week retreat at Hofstra University that was both enlightening and intense. The program's facilitators, from Bank Street College of Education, gave no quarter in questioning what we wanted to do and why we wanted to do it.

At the beginning of the third year, each school with the exception of one mainland school, which opted not to move to the Carnegie Model, filed proposals for implementation with the Superintendent.

Middle School 53 and the others were broken down to clusters that centered on four classes rather than on a grade.

Sixth graders basically worked in two-class teams with two teams making up a cluster.

Sixth grade students saw two major subject teachers each day - one of whom taught Language Arts and Social Studies and the other who taught Mathematics and Science. They had those two teachers 25 periods a week out of a possible 35 periods. That gave each of the students the maximum amount of content area education each school day. In fact, under this paradigm, students got seven periods a week of one major subject and six periods a week of the other three major subjects -- a far cry from what goes on now, where many students get only four periods of Science each week and even less of Social Studies.

Seventh grade students saw three major teachers each day. One teacher taught Social Studies and Language Arts, another Mathematics and a third, Science, under the idea that they needed the expertise of specialized teachers in those two subjects. They still saw their major subject teachers 25 periods out of 35.

In the eighth grade, the students had four major teachers that they saw each day for 25 periods, one for each of the traditional major subjects, as they would when they entered high school the following year.

Today, typically, students see their Mathematics teacher for 10 periods, their Language Arts teacher for 10 periods, their "Test-taking" teacher for 5 periods, their Science Teacher for four periods and their Social Studies teacher for three periods.

Things really improved under the Carnegie Model. Discipline tightened and scores began to move incrementally upward. Then, the Mayor got control and everything went out the window, including District 27 and the Carnegie Model.

Did that mean better education? It did mean better scores on the high-risk standardized tests, but not better education. Education means learning, and that went out the window with this mayor and this chancellor. Scores became all and scores are sometimes anathema to learning.

More next week.

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