Middle schools are not new in Montgomery County. Of the three middle schools now in existence in the county, at least one - Farquhar - has a program similar to the middle school concept the school board has voted to support.
Farquhar, headed by principal Walter H. Ray, has grades six, seven, and eight, although some middle schools, such as Southlawn in Rockville, include the fifth grade.
The middle school concept, educators say, is based on two main ideas. The first is to allow students who are emotionally and academically similar to be grouped together. The second is to allow teachers to coordinate studies within each grade.
The middle school is somewhere between elementary school, where every subject is taught by one teacher, and high school, where students go from one classroom to another for different subjects with no continuity between subjects and no planning between teachers.
The sixth grade at Farquhar, which closely adheres to the middle school concept, operates under the team approach. The 320 students are divided into four teams. Each team includes the students plus four teachers, one to teach each of the four basic required subjects - English, math, science and social studies.
Each teaching team plans together how to present the four subjects to its class. For example, through this week, students in one team will hear a group of adults discuss their science-related jobs. Afterward, as an English assignment, student will write papers about the speakers. For social studies, students will discuss the geographic areas where the speakers can be found pursuing their work.
In the middle school, "we have an opportunity to create a unique school for early adolescents," commented school superintendent Charles M. Bernardo.
Both Farquhar in Olney and Southlawn are unique as middle schools, but have some features the Montgomery school system does not want to reproduce in their proposed pilot program for Newport Jr. High in Kensington and Edwin W. Broome and Julius West junior highs in Rockville.
For instance, the seventh and eighth grades at Farquhar have departmentalized classes just as in junior high. Southlawn, on the other hand, with 300 students in four grades, is much smaller than the middle schools the county will create next year. The new middle schools would have about 250 to 280 students in each grade, according to Nancy Powell, co-coordinator of the middle and junior high schools project.
Southlawn, however, does have some features of the middle schools. According to Gene Counihan, co-coordinator of the middle and junior high schools project, Southlawn has "very coordinated team planning." Counihan said Southlawn is composed of three instruction teams - one for all of fifth grade and some of sixth, one for some of sixth grade and some of seventh. And one for some of seventh grade and all of eighth.
"The principle is you take some of your less mature sixth graders and group them with fifth graders," Counihan said. He added that the presence of the fifth graders can affect the environment of the school, making it different from a 6-8 middle school.
The strong arts program for all students at Farquhar, which is not offered to sixth graders in elementary schools, will definitely be included in the new experimental middle school program, it was said. Sixth graders at Farquhar take a survey course which includes fine arts, industrial arts and two weeks each (as sampling) of French, German, and Spanish. Seventh and eighth graders at Farquhar can concentrate on one of several subjects each semester such as fine arts, home economics or a foreign language.
Like Farquhar youngsters, the new middle school students also will have teachers who plan together for their classes, although the schools won't necessarily work under the team concept. Seventh and eighth graders will have departmentalized classes, but, unlike Farquhar, the teachers of those classes will have the opportunities and the time to plan the classes together. A major benefit, according to Powell, is that students will be able to move at more individualized rates through their class work.
"You may have some youngsters behind in math," she said. "Those youngsters will be able to spend maybe 15 minutes less on something else and 15 minutes more on math."
That is the sort of scheduling that teachers working together in a middle school can plan. Powell pointed out.It would be impossible to have such flexibility on the high school schedule. Furthermore, the close coordination among teachers will enable them to evalutate students' progress better and to spot students who need special help. Sixth graders, by moving into schools with seventh and eighth graders, will get the counseling and the extracurricular benefits that seventh and eighth graders already receive in the junior highs.
One misconception about middle schools, that they are "innovative and open schools," is not evident at Farquhar nor will it be the case at the new middle schools. "It (Farquhar) is physically very traditional," Ray said. "Students are expected to be in school on time or they get detention. If students are in the halls, they're expected to have hall passes."
In addition, Ray said, the school follows the county curriculum as will the new middle schools.
One problem at Farquhar, which will be avoided in the new schools, was the resentment parents felt by not being included in the planning for the Farquhar program. In the new middle schools, Powell said, a local school planning group for each school will be set up to observe and help in the change from junior to middle school.
There will also be safeguards to prevent another problem that occurred at Farquhar.
Administratively, for many years, Farquhar floated in a void - it was not an elementary school and it was not a secondary school - and sometimes it got lost in the shuffle. For example, said Powell, "A new curriculum would come out for the sixth grade, and no one would remember to invite the middle schools. The school system never geared up to support them. They sort of forgot there were schools with different grade organizations.
"We're asking the board to pass a policy committing them to middle schools and guaranteeing that the superintendent will have certain things to do to make sure middle schools are working."