Unstuck in the Middle

By Jay Mathews
Sunday, April 15, 2007

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.

Benton Middle 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.

Margaret Brent Middle 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.

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