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Pr. George's To Increase Middle School Specializations

By Nelson Hernandez
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 5, 2007

All 30 Prince George's County middle schools will offer one of several "signature programs" next year in an effort to bolster academic rigor and better prepare students for the crucial jump to high school, officials said yesterday.

Several of the programs -- such as the French immersion, Montessori and fine arts programs offered at four schools -- are not new. But others are new to the system: a mid-level International Baccalaureate program and lesser-known programs called Achievement Via Individual Determination, or AVID, and America's Choice.

The new programs are aimed at strengthening what Superintendent John E. Deasy called a "critical link" in the county's educational framework: the bridge between elementary school, where young students need constant supervision and are learning such basic things as reading and math, and high school, where students are set on the path to independence.

"Middle school has been, I think, our weakest link," said Rosalind A. Johnson, a school board member who has taught in county middle and high schools. "I am extremely pleased when I see the focus is on middle school, because we have truly needed it."

The middle school transition unfolds under a gathering storm of hormones -- students' ages range from 10 to 15 years old -- and in a larger and more diverse school setting.

Students who once were marched from class to class are presented with important academic and moral decisions and begin establishing habits that may stay with them through high school and beyond.

But there is a growing consensus among American educators that something isn't being done right in middle school. In many districts, students' skills in reading and math, as measured by test scores, decline from sixth to eighth grade, and high school teachers complain that they are being given students who write at the same level they did in elementary school. Difficulty in middle school can lead to failure in high school or dropping out altogether.

Middle schools, Deasy said, are "an area that's in great need of improvement across the country, and our county is no different. . . . The scale with which we're doing it is news because we don't want rigor to be an accident of geography."

Currently, the most successful middle schools in Prince George's offer signature programs such as those proposed by Deasy. Two schools, Robert Goddard and John Hanson, have dual programs in French immersion and Montessori. Thomas Pullen and Hyattsville offer programs in fine arts, and Walker Mill and Kenmoor have talented-and-gifted programs.

More than 80 percent of the seventh-graders who took reading exams last year at Hanson and Goddard passed. But at Benjamin Tasker -- where about 1 in 5 students come from low-income households, as they do at Hanson and Goddard -- 71.4 percent of the seventh-graders passed the reading test. At several schools in poorer areas, less than 50 percent of the students passed.

As he has proposed for county high schools, Deasy's answer for middle schools has been to call for each school to find an area in which to specialize.

Five middle schools have applied to become middle-level International Baccalaureate schools. Students in the program would study eight subjects, including technology and two languages, and would be eligible to make the transition to the International Baccalaureate programs offered by several county high schools. Graduates of the demanding program receive a diploma that carries international weight; the program is offered in 125 countries.

Nine schools will begin AVID programs in the fall. According to its Web site, the program targets students "in the academic middle," offering advanced classes to help prepare them for college. The program has showed some success in preparing students for high school and college: Eighth-graders in AVID programs tend to take algebra at higher rates than the national average, and students have also been more successful generally in applying to college.

Eleven schools will adopt the America's Choice program, which offers classes based on promoting literacy and skill at mathematics and pre-algebra. The schools have already carried out America's Choice pilot programs this spring; the results will not be clear until state test scores are released this summer.

Deasy said he hoped the programs would make a difference in the first year.

"We don't expect miracles, we expect effects," Deasy said. "More students engaged, more students in rigorous courses, more students showing success in their coursework."

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