Educators Emphasize Middle School Initiatives

Marlena Colleton-Pearsell, a teacher at Anne Arundel's Belle Grove Elementary School, assures kindergartner Brandon Webb that he won't get lost.
Marlena Colleton-Pearsell, a teacher at Anne Arundel's Belle Grove Elementary School, assures kindergartner Brandon Webb that he won't get lost. (By Katherine Frey -- The Washington Post)
By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Montgomery County School Superintendent Jerry D. Weast marched down a hallway on the first day of classes in the newly modernized Parkland Magnet Middle School in the Rockville area, trailed by a retinue of students. Then he stopped and asked, "Who's taking algebra?" Three hands went up.

A few years ago, the question would have seemed more fitting in a high school. But today, half of Montgomery students take high school algebra before they leave the eighth grade, part of a regionwide trend toward more rigorous instruction in middle school.

Middle schools are the center of attention as Washington area school systems enter the 2007-08 academic year, which began yesterday in Montgomery, Howard, Anne Arundel and Charles counties and in the District. Four of eight middle schools in Charles, eight of 19 in Anne Arundel and 11 of 38 in Montgomery missed their achievement targets this year under the No Child Left Behind law.

School boards in the Washington area and beyond are looking for ways to fix middle schools. They are widely regarded as the weak link in the K-12 system, a conviction reaffirmed by low scores on statewide exams such as the Maryland School Assessment. Test scores, parent involvement and overall academic luster all seem to decline in the middle grades, educators say, and disciplinary problems tend to rise. Few middle schools can match the high schools they feed in either academic rigor or teacher specialization.

In Montgomery, a $10 million, three-year middle-school effort has been launched this year to train teachers, accelerate curriculum, particularly in reading and math, and improve the leadership structure in schools.

The Prince George's County school system, which opened last week, also has intensified its focus on middle schools, adding an International Baccalaureate Middle Years program to some schools.

Yesterday, Weast toured a revitalized Parkland, where, after a $31 million modernization, classrooms are equipped with interactive wall-mounted screens that function as chalkboard, projector and computer rolled into one. The school is an aerospace magnet, offering such courses as matter and energy and astronomy to students as early as the sixth grade. The curriculum was designed to challenge and engage the middle-grade student.

"Kids here love robots," said Benjamin Ouyang, the acting principal. "They love space. They're Trekkies, a lot of them."

In a sixth-grade astronomy class, students used an electronic pointer to identify planets on the wall-mounted screen. Teacher Dorian Janney outlined plans for the first class project: a scale model of the solar system, rendered in toilet paper.

In addition to middle-school reform, Montgomery embarks this week on full-day preschool at 10 high-poverty campuses and on a new extended-day program, High School Plus, to replace evening high school.

In Charles, students filed into the new Theodore G. Davis Middle School, a $27.5 million Waldorf campus that, like Montgomery's Parkland, boasts superior technology and advanced science laboratories.

Some sixth-graders were a bit overwhelmed on arrival at a school that was unfamiliar and utterly new.

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