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Middle School in the U.S.: Too Often the Missing Link in the Chain of Student Success

Resource type: News

Gara LaMarche |

The familiar sounds of the famous Mexican songs “Cielito Lindo” and “Los Machetes” filled the air last Wednesday morning at Orozco Community Academy in Chicago, as eighth grader Adan Ramirsez strummed his guitarron with fellow students in the school’s new Mariachi band before an invited audience of civic, educational and philanthropic leaders. I was privileged to be there, and to listen to the first tangible results of a major Atlantic investment in strengthening supports for young people in the critical middle school years.

Adan, the child of immigrant parents — his mom works in a factory and his dad as a mechanic — explained that playing in the Mariachi band “makes afterschool fun,” adding: “I have somewhere to go and something to do.”

As much as Adan likes the sense of purpose and fun that the band brings to the afterschool hours, he is not short on ideas about what he wants to accomplish in his life. He wants to be an attorney, and so he is focused on doing well in middle school and then graduating from high school, college and law school. Adan’s goals should be music to the ears of everyone who believes that all children, regardless of poverty, immigration status or ethnic or racial background, deserve the opportunity to succeed in school and in life. There is no higher obligation for those of us who are adults than to make things better for the coming generation. Those of us in philanthropy have a heightened obligation and opportunity to do so.

My visit to the Orozco Academy and the surrounding Pilsen neighbourhood was prompted by the official launch of an effort that will support thousands of middle-school students like Adan in achieving their goals. In Orozco’s library that morning, I appeared with leaders of local organisations, other foundations, Chicago Public Schools CEO Arne Duncan, and Orozco Academy’s principal, to announce that Atlantic is providing $18 million over four years to ensure that Adan and his fellow students at five Chicago middle schools will have the support they need to shape their futures. The grant, made to the Chicago Community Trust, will be managed by the Local Initiatives Support Corporation of Chicago and implemented at each school through partnerships between community-based organisations and local Chicago Public Schools. The grant is intended to build on the important work of many Chicago educators, funders, community organisations and parents, and it will attract nearly $16 million from other funders.

The Chicago effort is part of a national initiative that Atlantic and others are supporting in New Mexico and Oakland, California. The initiative is working to ensure that middle schools are no longer the missing links in the chain of educational success in this country, enabling local educators, community leaders and parents to focus on a group of students whose needs are as great as they are complex. Solid research demonstrates that focusing on the success of eighth graders and making sure that they are ready for ninth grade will go a long way to ensuring that they graduate from high school.

Through the initiative in Chicago and the other locations, each student will have the opportunity to participate in high-quality, out-of-school-time learning programmes during the afterschool hours, on weekends, and all summer long; access to caring and resourceful adult mentors; and comprehensive health services. In addition, these students and their families will be connected with other supports for which they are eligible, including federal tax credits and government-financed health care coverage programmes for kids. While each of these supports has proved helpful on its own in strengthening children’s success, the initiative will allow local communities to offer all of them at one time to meet the complex needs of each young person. As the initiative demonstrates that combined supports bolster student success to an even greater extent, local educational and elected leaders and community organisations will advocate at the local, state and federal levels for others to adopt this common-sense approach.

While we are guided by a national vision for supporting middle-school students, we have no wish to foist a “cookie cutter” programme on to all communities, as much of what passes for education reform in recent years has regrettably done. We support what local leaders and parents believe will work for their kids in each location. The needs of a child in a reservation school for Native Americans in New Mexico may differ from the needs of an African-American child in Oakland, or a Mexican-American student in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood.

Pilsen was once a Polish neighborhood — the local Roman Catholic Church still advertises a now defunct Polish language mass — but now Spanish is the local vernacular. Nearly 98 per cent of Orozco Academy’s students are of Mexican descent. Coralia Barraza, the school’s energetic school principal, came to the U.S. from Guatemala illegally at 18, worked in a factory for eight years, was naturalised, and went on to earn a bachelor’s degree and two master’s degrees. She started at Orozco as a second-grade teacher in a bilingual classroom, and now is finishing up her fifth year as the principal of this special school, which offers its 600 middle-school students a curriculum that focuses on the fine arts.

The Academy is named for José Clemente Orozco, the famed early 20th century Mexican muralist whose works were central to the Mexican Mural Renaissance, along with those of Diego Rivera and others. In the spirit of Orozco, the school building is adorned with Mexican-themed murals that were designed by one of the school’s art teachers.

If anyone understands the complex needs of Orozco’s middle-school students, it is Ms. Barraza, who described with passion the academic, linguistic, cultural, physical, psychological and social challenges her students face. For the students to succeed, she believes they need to devote time to many activities, including working on “mastering content areas” such as reading, math and social studies; receiving instruction in English, because many of them “don’t speak English at home”; participating in physical fitness activities; and getting the mental health attention they need.

“Brains and the body go together,” Ms. Barraza said. “Middle schoolers go through a lot — the stages of life, peer pressure — and they don’t always have their own identity for the future.”

She noted the severe mental strain that immigrant Mexican-American students often experience, reinforcing my strong support of Atlantic’s commitment to justice for immigrants (The Defeat of Immigration Reform in the U.S. – Now What? & Should Children Pay the Price for Inhumane U.S. Immigration Policies?).

“These kids feel under pressure. They come in to my office crying, fearing that their parents are going to be deported. They feel the pressure, lots of pressure, and that’s why I am glad we have the grant.” Ms. Barraza added, “We need to give them the opportunity to be who they are and who they want to be in future. Three or four months ago, they would never have thought that they would be in a Mariachi band performing in public, but today they are. They need to understand what’s possible.”

To read more about this initiative in Chicago, please visit the web sites of Atlantic’s local partners:

Gara LaMarche