Middle school often is referred to as a critical but dicey period, the bridge between elementary and high school when hormones and emotions collide with algebra and social studies.
Montgomery County educators have launched a two-year effort to examine its bridges, all 36 of them. The school system hopes to refocus a middle school program that parents believe varies widely by campus and could do more to challenge gifted and magnet students while still reaching out to those who are struggling in reading and math.
"We have to have consistency across the board,'' said Associate Superintendent Dale Fulton. "The quality of education shouldn't depend on where you live."
After years of making primary grades a priority, Montgomery joins school systems nationwide that are revamping middle schools.
"One of things we know about this age group is that they're going through more changes than at any other time in their life, other than their first three years of life," said Sue Swaim, a former middle school teacher and principal who is executive director of the National Middle School Association. "They're changing emotionally, physically and intellectually. You have to understand and be aware of that."
Restructuring middle school is not a new idea: The publication in 1989 of what is considered the seminal document on the topic, "Turning Points" by the Carnegie Council on Adolescent Development, led to a flurry of changes. But with school systems fearful of sanctions because of No Child Left Behind legislation, they are looking at changes with new urgency. About half the required testing under the Bush program takes place during the middle school years.
"You have a double whammy for middle schools,'' said Toni Eubank, director of Making Middle Grades Work, an initiative begun in 1997 by the Southern Regional Education Board. "They've got their own efforts at meeting No Child Left Behind's Adequate Yearly Progress goals as well as pressure from high schools that need to meet their own requirements."
Locally, a handful of school systems have made efforts to strengthen middle school programs. In 2000, Howard County passed a strict policy allowing educators to hold back students not performing at grade level.
Last week, Montgomery educators released a 109-page audit that offered some insight into the school system's middle grade programs. Though the document praised the schools for increasing the number of students taking high-level math and full-year foreign language courses, it found several inconsistencies in the way teachers are trained and the way in which students are taught and disciplined at the middle school level. Many parents interviewed as part of the audit believe that school quality often was based more on geography than anything else.
Few in the school system seemed surprised by the findings. A group of black parents who recently criticized the system for the low number of black and Hispanic students admitted to magnet programs said that if the overall quality of middle schools were better, parents might be more comfortable sending their children to non-magnet programs.
Those who study middle school changes said many of the issues addressed in Montgomery's audit reflect the ones that school systems nationwide are grappling with.
They say educators have to be careful to balance strong academics with a program that offers emotional support for students who often go from sunny to sullen in 30 seconds. But that, too, is a fine line, Eubank said. "Part of what we do is let students off the hook for learning because they've got these 'issues,' so they don't hold them to as high of an expectation," she said. "For reforms to work, the message has to be clear: rigorous expectations for all."
Montgomery schools already use many of the strategies that experts say work in high-performing middle schools. Many have done away with the "mini-high school" model that many parents might recall from their middle school days, in which a teacher stood in front of classes and lectured, and students rotated from class to class for six or seven 50-minute periods.
Today, teachers are less likely to work as "independent contractors" and more likely to work in teams with a set group of students. The idea is to offer students a more personal setting so they are less likely to get lost in the shuffle. If a student is struggling, a team of teachers can trouble-shoot.
Still, principals and administrators acknowledge, for the strategies to work, the system needs to offer teachers more training and planning time so they are clear about what they need to teach and have time to develop lesson plans and collaborate with colleagues to make things work in the classroom.
The system also needs to better monitor schools to make sure they are reaching all students.
If the school system can do that, it could help close achievement gaps that have resulted in almost 75 percent of the students at Rockville's Robert Frost Middle School being enrolled in algebra or a higher level math course but only 32.9 percent of students in similar courses at Argyle Middle School in Silver Spring.
Principals know the new effort means closer scrutiny of their campuses, but many welcome that.
"Now we can really explain and articulate what we're doing at the middle school level,'' said Darryl L. Williams, principal at William H. Farquhar Middle School in Olney. "This has given us an opportunity to really shine and to get the resources and support that we need.''