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Unstuck in the Middle

Resource type: News

The Washington Post |

By Jay Matthews FOR MANY AMERICAN PARENTS, MIDDLE SCHOOL HAS BECOME SOMETHING TO DREAD. They hear that even the fancy private middle schools that charge $20,000 a year will be one of two things: a lockdown prison or an anything-goes playpen. Educators have mostly given up teaching hormonally challenged early adolescents, parents are told. The widespread belief is that good middle schools will either try to keep your kid quiet or keep her happy, but that’s it. Over the last few months, we have asked readers to tell us about the best middle schools they have encountered. Having heard so many horror stories, it was a surprise to read e-mails and letters from more than 500 parents, students, educators and community members pointing out great teachers and wise principals making real progress with children at that itchy age. The results are the following snapshots, in alphabetical order, of 30 area middle schools that are doing things right. We have provided some basic information on each school, including how long each principal has been at the school and the most telling and universal measure of a middle school’s level of challenge: what percentage of eighth-graders complete Algebra I. But we give readers’ opinions priority, while checking some of their impressions with outside experts on these schools. When community members celebrate a school that is helping kids they know personally, their opinions have an authenticity that test score averages sometimes cannot match. This is a time of middle school experimentation. Independently run but tax-supported charter schools are increasing. Educators are wondering whether seventh- and eighth-graders might do better if they were the revered oldest students in kindergarten-through-eighth-grade schools, rather than isolated with other early teens like themselves. There is growing emphasis on academic achievement because the federal No Child Left Behind law requires public middle schools to test their students every year and release the results. Our list is not comprehensive, because we lack space and time to explore all the schools you nominated. And we are including just a sampling of the comments per school. Even so, the elements of a great middle school are clear from these accounts. Parents looking for the best place for their child should seek a principal liked and re-spected by parents, teachers who are imaginative and willing to give more time to students who need it, extra activities and traditions that intrigue this age group and high standards for all children. If questions are not quickly answered, if the principal is unfriendly, if strong courses such as algebra or foreign language are not available to your child, you ought to look for a better middle school. As the response to our survey shows, they really are out there. BentonMiddle School Manassas, Prince William County, 1,212 students, grades 6 to 8; principal Linda L. Leibert (seven years); 7 percent low income, *71 percent white, 12 percent black, 9 percent Hispanic, 4 percent Asian; 24 percent completed algebra. Full of people who feel teaching is their calling, Benton’s faculty has given the school a lustrous reputation among parents. When Annmarie Kirkpatrick’s child was having trouble in some classes, his teachers leaped on the issue immediately, impressing her with Benton’s emphasis on helping each student. The teachers began to check her son’s assignments each day and let her know in writing when he had none. They offered more time, much of it unpaid, to help him after school. Amber Bateman, an elementary school educator, found the same care taken with her two children. What intrigued her was Benton’s success at focusing on students’ ability to express themselves artistically even though it had little bearing on the all-important test scores. “The quality of [art] work showcased in local and national contests is remarkable,” she said. MargaretBrentMiddle School St. Mary’s County, 879 students, grades 6 to 8; principal Ryan P. Hitchman (two years); 12.8 percent low income, 87 percent white, 10 percent black, 2 percent Hispanic, 1 percent Asian; 12.5 percent completed algebra. Brent’s motivational tools and academic embellishments are so numerous that parents and teachers have trouble listing them all. There are the Good Referral Lunches (students rewarded for good behavior get lunch ordered in and ice cream sundaes), Students and Teachers Reading Together (everyone opens a book from 10:26 to 10:44 a.m. daily), Honors Language Arts (Shakespeare to Orwell), Recognition Fridays (huzzahs and prizes for students showing academic progress) and many more. Sixth-grade mathematics teacher Stephanie Kurtz said many of these ideas were solicited from the teachers by principal Hitchman. Award-winning language arts teacher Ann Eichenmuller said Hitchman visits every class at least once a week and always plays in the faculty-student athletic contests. CapitolHillDay School D.C., 225 students, pre-kindergarten to 8; principal Catherine Peterson (22 years); tuition $20,590; 62 percent white, 38 percent other; 100 percent completed algebra. Just 75 sixth-through-eighth-graders inhabit the former public school building and adjoining rowhouse at Second Street and South Carolina Avenue SE. But parents speak of a family atmosphere quite beyond what some better-known private schools achieve. Middle-schoolers feel like royalty with so many younger kids around. Marcia F. Silcox, parent of two graduates, has seen kindergartners clinging to the legs of their favorite eighth-graders. Throwbacks to an earlier era, the English teachers make sure everyone knows how to diagram sentences. The school also trains students to study in an organized way, as taught by the school’s legendary English teacher Della Spradlin. Field trips are an obsession. Day school students watch live heart bypass operations, tour landfills, test principles of physics on a curling rink, visit museums and attend the theater. RachelCarsonMiddle School Herndon, Fairfax County, 1,149 students, grades 7 and 8; principal August “Augie” Fratalli (four years); 6 percent low income, 59 percent white, 6 percent black, 4 percent Hispanic, 28 percent Asian; 64 percent completed algebra. So, here is a typical FairfaxCounty middle school, full of great teachers and children from affluent families. Yet the parents see something extraordinary about the way the faculty members apply themselves to their jobs. Frances Hartnett Angara, a seventh-grade parent, said Rachel Carson teachers e-mail her with weekly reports of what her son is doing. Daily physical education classes keep adolescent bodies as sound as their minds, and bullying, a frequent complaint on middle school campuses, is rare, parents said. Even the custodial staff gets raves: “Every time I step into the building, I cannot help but notice its cleanliness,” said seventh-grade parent Shery Palmucci. Parent Linda Pesce praises the lively arts program, which includes five bands, three choruses and three orchestras. ChesapeakeSciencePointPublicCharterSchool Hanover, Anne Arundel County, 191 students, grades 6 to 9; principal Fatih Kandil (one year); 18 percent low income, 59 percent white, 35 percent black, 3 percent Hispanic, 3 percent Asian; 75 percent completed algebra. This new charter school had a bad start, with teachers in bitter conflict with the school’s leadership and the school system having to intervene. But parents have remained very loyal and say the worst is over. Steven Andraka overlooked the school’s problems because he wanted a middle school for his son that emphasized mathematics and science, and, “to our delight, the school is a perfect match,” with its challenging classes and after-school clubs in Web design, electronics, math and robotics. Tina Lawrence’s son had long struggled in English and math, but she found the school to be “the best thing that ever happened” to him. Special education teacher Lois Godboldte and English teacher Lovetta Thompson “have worked very hard with him, even on Saturdays,” Lawrence said. Ali Gurbuz, her son’s math teacher, welcomed him to the school’s special Saturday tutoring sessions and tutored him individually on Fridays. CooperMiddle School McLean, Fairfax County, 931 students, grades 7 and 8; principal Arlene Randall (10 years); 1 percent low income, 76 percent white, 1 percent black, 4 percent Hispanic, 14 percent Asian; 59 percent completed algebra. Cooper sits in one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in America, where people expect the public schools to be good. But the many parents who nominated it most often cited the little instances in which faculty members go out of their way for kids. For instance, Petra Barrientos’s son could not get his locker open his first day of middle school last September. She did not expect he’d get much help, with everything else going on. But, to her surprise, an assistant to the principal made fixing that mechanical mishap a top priority, and then called Barrientos the next day to say all was well. Despite Cooper’s advantages, parents and students say staff members still act as if they have to prove themselves. Seventh-grader Andrew Havasy praised social studies teacher Jeff Ahern’s “map tag” geography game. Eighth-grader Chinelle Ekanem loved the challenge of the congressional simulation, in which she had to write and lobby for her own bills. Seventh-grade parent Robyn Maselli said principal Arlene Randall “tells it like it is, and I believe the students appreciate that.” FarmwellStationMiddle School Ashburn, Loudoun County, 1,060 students, grades 6 to 8; principal Sherryl Loya (two years); 10.4 percent low income, 66 percent white, 10 percent black, 9.5 percent Hispanic, 13 percent Asian; 54 percent completed algebra. Many of the middle schools praised by readers have been around for decades. In rapidly growing LoudounCounty, such venerable institutions are harder to find, but in just nine years Farmwell Station has developed a reputation for good teaching and thoroughly preparing students for the county’s demanding high schools. Tracy Rossi said that when she decided sales and marketing work was just not feeding her soul, she got a master’s degree in teaching and found what she calls her “dream job” teaching life sciences to seventh-graders at Farmwell Station. Susan Godfrey, a math teacher, said “students feel invested in the school. At Farmwell we offer a very challenging curriculum and many, many extracurricular activities as well.” It is among 112 Schools to Watch, recognized for academic strength, democratic values and sensitivity to adolescents by the National Forum to Accelerate Middle-Grades Reform. RobertFrostMiddle School Rockville, Montgomery County, 1,152 students, grades 6 to 8; principal Joey Jones (five years); 3 percent low income, 56 percent white, 4 percent black, 6 percent Hispanic, 34 percent Asian; 70 percent completed algebra. Frost has great teachers and motivated students, but what separates it from many other fine suburban campuses is its playful side, students and parents said. Every spring, the school presents the Dessert Theatre, a musical with a chance at a part for everyone — and cakes, tarts and pies heaped on tables for the audience. English teacher Joe Ballmann organizes annual foosball tournaments in his classroom that draw huge crowds. The Weather Club has attained cult status: Future forecasters check the barometer, measure the wind and report the news of impending storms — and maybe even that there will be no school the next day! All is presided over by unforgettable principal Joey Jones. “He is a huge guy,” said eighth-grader Callista Stoop, “but never intimidating because of the enormous smile on his face.” GreenAcresSchool Rockville, 130 students, grades 5 to 8; principal Peter Braverman (four years); tuition $22,500; 76 percent white, 6 percent black, 8 percent Hispanic, 10 percent Asian; 92 percent completed algebra. It is a small private school with a reputation for finding just the formula that works for each child. Linda Youngentob said she chose Green Acres because she loved the pre-kindergarten and kindergarten. But now with children ages 10, 13 and 17 (a Green Acres graduate), “I realize that the real gem of Green Acres is the middle school.” Amy Niles, another parent, agreed. “Green Acres’ successful placement with area high schools, both public and private, is testimony to the fact that the school grows very successful students,” she said. The middle-schoolers’ unique place at the top of the school’s hierarchy also has benefits. “After the school musical, you can see the younger kids lining up to get the autographs of the seventh- and eighth-graders,” Youngen-tob said. GunstonMiddle School Arlington County, 586 students, grades 6 to 8; principal Margaret “Madge” Gill (four years); 52 percent low income, 24 percent white, 23 percent black, 46 percent Hispanic, 7 percent Asian; 32 percent completed algebra. This school is one of the many surprises of south Arlington, a community whose schools, despite large numbers of low-income students, have earned local and national recognition for challenging teaching. Samantha Roberts’s son, after finishing eighth grade at Gunston, joined his family in Ecuador and enrolled in a private school with a tough British curriculum. Yet his intensified algebra and other courses at Gunston were so good that he was promoted to the equivalent of 10th grade. “The headmaster was flummoxed,” Roberts said. Award-winning Gunston math teacher Linda Allen said the school is full of transient students, but in some ways that helps. “We have no dominant cliques. Kids get used to making friends, and new and different is the norm,” she said. Harper’s ChoiceMiddle School Columbia, Howard County, 552 students, grades 6 to 8; principal Stephen Wallis (six years); 23 percent low income, 40 percent white, 43 percent black, 7 percent Hispanic, 9 percent Asian; 45 percent completed algebra. Even rich suburbs such as HowardCounty have pockets of poverty, and Harper’s Choice draws many of its students from them. When Stephen Wallis arrived as principal six years ago, he found the usual pathologies of schools with many disadvantaged kids: low average test scores, poor teacher morale, racial tension, disruptive behavior, vandalism, few PTA members and no business partnerships. Now test scores are up; suspensions are down; the PTA has more than 400 members; and 27 businesses have established partnerships with the school, tops in the county. The school has been cited as a National PTA “School of Excellence,” and Wallis was awarded a National Distinguished Leadership Award by the American Federation of School Administrators. So far, only the most knowledgeable parents have gotten the message. “We have cringed many times when acquaintances have told us that they are so glad that their children do not attend Harper’s Choice,” said sixth-grade parents Kim and Ben Flyr in an e-mail. “What they don’t know is that they are missing a great school.” HyattsvilleMiddle School Prince George’s County, 810 students, grades 7 to 8; principal Gail Golden (nine years); 59 percent low income, 9 percent white, 55 percent black, 33 percent Hispanic, 2 percent Asian; 12.4 percent completed algebra. Many parents were shunning Hyattsville Middle when Gail Golden became principal nine years ago. It was on the Maryland state watch list of underachieving schools and had 25 teacher vacancies. Since Golden hired a new batch of teachers eager for the challenge and added a creative and performing arts program, the school’s test scores have improved, and enrollment has grown 33 percent, with an influx of both low-income Hispanic students and middle-class students drawn by its rising reputation. Hyattsville missed the federal No Child Left Behind targets for special education and limited English students last year, but the arts program and the higher learning standards have convinced many parents it is the place to be. Linda Ferrete said her three children excelled in band, orchestra and fine arts. Student Chloe Yates said, “The students here have the right, and positive, attitude toward learning. Mostly everyone wants to have a successful life.” Ernest Everett Just Middle School Mitchellville, Prince George’s County, 1,040 students, grades 7 to 8; principal Marian White-Hood (four years); 33 percent low income, 1 percent white, 96 percent black, 2 percent Hispanic, 1 percent Asian; 12 percent completed algebra. Many schools are defined by their principals, and White-Hood has a hall of fame r?sum?, with several big awards. Eighth-grader Chandara Un said, “You will never find a more determined and caring individual than Dr. White-Hood.” The school is in one of Prince George’s County’s wealthiest neighborhoods, but has many low-income students, and White-Hood does not like to waste learning time. Staff members take turns reading aloud to stu-dents as they wait for class to begin in the morning. High-performing students tutor other students before class. After school and on Saturdays, the school has extended learning opportunity programs for those who need even more time. KenmoreMiddle School Arlington County, 761 students, grades 6 to 8; principal John Word (nine years); 55 percent low income, 26 percent white, 19 percent black, 43 percent Hispanic, 12 percent Asian, 40 percent completed algebra. Parent Valerie Gamache-Janetos called Kenmore “the best-kept secret in Arlington,” but word is getting out. The school’s new state-of-the-art building is hard to ignore. And many people have heard of its longtime principal, John Word. “This guy is awesome,” said Scott Sklar, the PTA president. “He is strong on basics but big on pride and tailoring education to meet the different students.” Laurie Vicente said she saw this extraordinary attention to every child when her son transferred from a Catholic school. Last year, Word wrote a personal note on every student’s report card. Vicente’s son’s homeroom teacher checked with him each afternoon to make sure he had all his assignments written down. She even called him at home at night to make sure he had done them. KeyMiddle School Springfield, Fairfax County, 820 students, grades 7 to 8; principal Penny Myers (one year); 37 percent low income, 29 percent white, 15 percent black, 26 percent Hispanic, 26 percent Asian; 25 percent completed algebra. Unlike the other FairfaxCounty middle schools on the list, Key is a rich mix of ethnicities and has a much higher percentage of low-income students than is typical for the county. That only makes parents that much more grateful for the quality of instruction they find. When Julianna Bachmann’s son decided to take a break from the workload of a gifted and talented center and do seventh grade as an honors-level student at Key, his mother was not sure what to expect. What she and her son got were seven teachers who were “pleasant, approachable, superior in their fields and extremely professional,” she said. Eighth-grade parent Linda Gyles said her daughter has excelled in her honors classes, “all because of the caring and commitment of the teachers,” particularly her seventh-grade math teacher, Marci Dietrich. “She has also learned the importance of trust, commitment, compassion and diligence from these same wonderful teachers,” Gyles said. KilmerMiddle School Vienna, Fairfax County, 1,070 students, grades 7 to 8; principal Deborah Hernandez (two years); 12 percent low income, 59 percent white, 4 percent black, 10 percent Hispanic, 21 percent Asian; 54 percent completed algebra. This is another well-endowed FairfaxCounty school that helps buttress the county’s great reputation among educators. Carol A. Price said that sending her son from a fine Catholic school to Kilmer “was the best decision we ever made. . . A group of extremely dedicated and caring teachers . . . have made a tremendous difference in his life these last two years.” It is a school of great extremes. PTA president Laurie Baker said, “We have students studying in a gifted and talented center, students taking honors classes, students whose native language is not English, students taking general education classes and students who are severely or moderately disabled.” To help everyone, principal Deborah Hernandez added a seventh period so students can start their homework, make up a quiz, use the library, work with a teacher or read just for fun. KIPP DC: KEYAcademy 320 students, grades 5 to 8, principal Sarah Hayes (three years); AIM Academy, 240 students grades 5 to 7, principal Khala Johnson (two years); and WILL Academy, 160 students, grades 5 to 6, principal Jessica Cunningham (one year); schools as a whole: 75 percent low income, 99.9 percent black, 75 percent completed algebra. These three sister charters are the most elebrated middle schools in the area. KEY’s first principal, Susan Schaeffler, created a program six years ago that has the highest test scores in the city, despite drawing almost all of its students from low-income homes. She now directs all three campuses, which follow the national Knowledge Is Power Program model of nine-hour school days, teacher creativity and principal power to hire and fire based on student achievement. Sharron Hall, with three children at KEYAcademy, said some of the rules, such as parents having to meet with teachers when a student does not complete homework, “were something I had to get used to.” But, she said, “I love the curriculum, and I love the structure of the school.” Her son Jaquan, a fifth-grader, praised lessons that are not all sitting and listening. “You get to move around there,” he said. PaulPublicCharterSchool, D.C., 617 students, grades 6 to 8; principal Barbara Nophlin (three years); 54 percent low income, 1 percent white, 76 percent black, 24 percent Hispanic, 0.3 percent Asian; 63 percent completed algebra. Parents, teachers and, particularly, D.C. school leaders have been watching Paul carefully ever since 2000, when it became the only regular D.C. school to switch to charter status and make its own decisions. The verdict so far is good, with parents saying it is one of the best schools in Northwest Washington. Sandra Elliott attended Paul in the 1970s, when it was a regular public junior high school. She vowed never to send her own children there. But when Elliott visited three years ago, after the change to charter status, she saw honor students’ names posted, character education celebrated, the staff friendly and the teachers dedicated. “My impression of Paul was forever changed,” she said, and she enrolled her younger daughter. The school is open from 7:15 a.m. to 6 p.m., with an array of extended day programs. Elliott said she was impressed by the long hours worked by principal Barbara Nophlin and the willingness of teachers to share their e-mail addresses and even their cell and home phone numbers. To them, she said, her daughter is “not just a student in a classroom of many, but an individual.” PiccowaxenMiddle School Newburg, Charles County, 492 students, grades 6 to 8; principal Kenneth Schroeck (1 year); 14.2 percent low income, 81 percent white, 16 percent black, 2 percent Hispanic, 0.4 percent Asian; 44 percent completed algebra. The school is smaller than most suburban middle schools, and it has developed a reputation of close attention to each child’s needs. Karen Dupree said she was very nervous about transferring her son from a very small Christian school to Piccowaxen. But the public school’s new principal, Kenneth Schroeck, put her at ease, and she discovered that “the teachers at this school are amazing.” They kept her in close touch with her son’s progress by e-mail and put him in challenging classes that he loved. Suzanne Hornick, another parent, said she was particularly impressed by the peer mediation group, the brainchild of counselor Sheila Heatley. At a team-building lesson during an outdoor camp, Hornick watched the staff put 20 children from different grades, few of them friends, through a full day of exercises. The adults stood back as the students tackled the problem of getting one another across a make-believe “poison peanut butter pit” without touching the ground. “The staff had so much confidence in the children that they never doubted their ability to meet each challenge head on,” she said. HerbertJ.SaundersMiddle School Manassas, Prince William County, 1,042 students, grades 6 to 8; principal Catherine “Pat” Puttre (10 years); 18 percent low income, 45 percent white, 28 percent black, 22 percent Hispanic, 5 percent Asian; 12 percent completed algebra. Education reporters learn early that schools with a minority of affluent white students generally have bad reputations in their neighborhoods. It is a sad reflection of racism, but some schools, such as Saunders, overcome that stigma, usually because their principal and teachers are unusually good at their jobs. “My daughter’s last year of elementary school was difficult for her, but when she reached Saunders she blossomed,” said Lucinda Law, a single parent. “Mrs. Dodge, her sixth-grade math teacher, delivered a bouquet of balloons to her home when she made the cheerleading squad. Mr. Baroz, her seventh-grade math teacher, always makes her laugh and regularly e-mails her mom if her grades slip, even a little bit.” Lynette Rampy found this unexpected coziness a very pleasant surprise. Her sixth-grade son, in a public school for the first time, “even received a postcard in the mail from a teacher basically saying what a good student he was,” she said. Music teacher Deborah Y. Simmons said she likes the atmosphere so much that she has been commuting 100 miles roundtrip daily from Maryland for 18 years. She said she does not want to lose the experience of “everyone in the building working together.”

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