Alexandria rethinking small middle schools

Shortly after former superintendent Morton Sherman came to Alexandria, he orchestrated a dramatic reorganization of the city’s two middle schools to boost poor performance: He divided them into smaller schools.

Four years later, the new interim superintendent is proposing another major reorganization of the city’s five middle schools to boost persistent lagging performance: Consolidating them back into bigger schools.

The school board is scheduled to vote Thursday on a plan that would combine the five autonomous schools at George Washington and Francis C. Hammond middle schools, a reverse engineering that they hope will bring renewed focus to student success.

“We are not getting the academic gains we want to see for our students,” interim superintendent Alvin L. Crawley said, adding that there could be serious ramifications “if we continue down this path.”

Four of the five middle schools are at risk of losing state accreditation within the next few years if they do not significantly improve their performance on state tests, and combining the schools would help the overall accreditation status of the city’s middle schools, Crawley said.

Alexandria is already working to stave off the possible takeover of Jefferson Houston School, a pre-K through eighth grade school that lost its accreditation and could come under the authority of a state-wide board created by the General Assembly last year to turn around Virginia’s most chronically under-performing schools.

The search for a winning structure or formula for middle schools is a familiar one to school districts around the country as educators struggle to maintain the attention of socially obsessed emerging teens. In the District, as in Alexandria, many parents have historically opted out of traditional public middle schools in search of other ways to shepherd their children through those pivotal years.

Creating schools within schools was a popular high school reform in the 1990s. However, many of those schools have since reverted to their former structures because the effort did not lead to better academic results, said Douglas D. Ready, an assistant education professor at Teachers College, Columbia University, who co-authored a book about the reform approach.

“Teachers said they knew kids better . . . but it didn’t change what [they] were doing in the classroom,” Ready said.

The goal of the smaller schools in Alexandria was to create more personalized environments with greater individual support, a goal that many parents say has been achieved. The smaller schools also were charged with increasing the rigor of the curriculum for all students, through higher enrollments in algebra and geometry and honors-level classes.

Those goals were largely met, but the overall performance of the city’s middle schools continued to falter. The school board decided to re-evaluate the middle schools last spring, and a working group of parents, students, employees and community members convened in June to study the schools.

The group documented widespread concerns about a lack of consistency in how students were disciplined or graded at the schools within schools. It also noted concerns about school climate, demonstrated in particular by high turnover among administrators at Hammond.

The reconsolidation is part of a broader plan for reforming the middle schools, each of which would have one head principal and three academic principals assigned to follow a cohort of students throughout their middle school years to get to know them and ensure instruction is targeted to their needs.

A dean of students at each school would be in charge of managing discipline, and a director of school counseling would oversee a team of counselors with reduced caseloads. Each school also would have a resource teacher for talented and gifted students.

Crawley said that the proposal is “cost neutral” and that new positions will be covered by reductions in other areas.

Reconsolidating schools has been a popular idea with parents and staff at Hammond, where all three of the schools within the school are accredited with warning, a designation that means its achievement levels are too low for full state accreditation.

Janese Bechtol, president of the Parent Teacher Association there, said having three small schools under one roof led students to constantly compare their experiences, with discussions about who had the best principal, or which school had more favorable lunchroom rules. Consolidating would eliminate the sense that some students are getting something that others are not, or that “the grass is always greener,” she said.

Opinions at George Washington have been mixed. That campus is divided into two schools, one of which is fully accredited.

Stephen Goodin, whose son is in the sixth grade at George Washington 1, said he’s worried that another sweeping change would be overly disruptive and without clear benefits.

“Middle school is not pretty anyway you slice it, when you think of what’s happening with kids at that time in their development,” Goodin said, adding that dividing the big school into two made it a “more manageable universe” for his son, who so far has had a good experience there.

Michael Alison Chandler writes about schools and families in the Washington region.
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