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Doing the math: the middle-school dilemma

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When our son, proud alumnus of the Rochester school district, was a high-school senior in 1988, he and his classmates wore a T-shirt created especially for them. Its wording: "They saved the best till last."

                  The school was Monroe Junior-Senior High School, of which his (we thought) was the last graduating class. The next year, Monroe became a middle school, part of a citywide restructuring designed to cope with declining test scores, overcrowded elementary schools, and a growing concern about problems of young adolescents.

                  Our son's senior year was an emotional one. Many Monroe faculty members and parents didn't want the district to rip apart a school they were fond of, one that was doing good things. As the parent of two (soon to be three) Monroe graduates, I was conflicted, too.

                  Monroe is a big building. But the faculty and administrators had found a way to make it nurturing and friendly. All three of our very different children had gotten a superb education, from teachers, counselors, and administrators who knew them well, stayed on their case when they got out of line, had high expectations of them, and responded with intensely personal care and dedication when there were problems.

                  We were sold on Monroe from the day our oldest child took her first step through its big doors as a tiny 7th grader to the night our youngest child and his classmates graduated and ended Monroe's history as a junior-senior high.

                  Despite my fondness for the school, as this newspaper's editor I endorsed the school district's plan to create separate middle and high schools. Several of the district's arguments were particularly compelling:

                  • Upper-grade enrollment in some schools was so small that the district couldn't afford to offer Advanced Placement courses and a broad range of electives. If you pooled the high-school classes of two schools, though, you could have enough students to justify those courses.

                  • The high-school dropout rate was increasing. Maybe, district officials suggested, students had had an unpleasant experience in junior high.

                  • District officials believed that young adolescents needed separate, special schools designed specifically for them. The district, they said, would train teachers and administrators to deal with the needs of children of that volatile, complicated age. There would be special curricula, special sports programs, specially trained counselors.

                  Now the district is preparing to reverse course. Last week, the School Board voted to pull many of its sixth graders out of middle schools next year and put them back into elementary schools. And on February 27, board members will vote on the rest of Interim Superintendent Manny Rivera's redesign plan. If they approve it, the year after next the district will start adding grades, one at a time, to most middle and high schools.

                  And approve it, they certainly will. Having already "emptied out our middle schools of sixth-graders --- what choices do we now have?" asks School Board member Joanne Giuffrida, who supports the plan. If the board doesn't approve the next phase, she says, "we'd run with under-populated middle schools and overcrowded high schools."

                  Having approved the sixth-grade piece "doesn't mean that we would have to go with 7-12," says board member Rob Brown, "but I personally believe it makes no sense to do anything but 7-12."

                  The district has two goals: to solve a serious overcrowding problem, and to improve student achievement. Given the circumstances, the 7-12 plan makes sense, I think. But Rivera and the board should continue to say --- as they have said already --- that redesign alone will not be enough for Rochester students. Not nearly enough.

Some parents and teachers are fighting the plan --- and among the most vocal have been those from Monroe Middle School. I understand their concern. In some important ways, the school works, as a press release from the Monroe PTA says. Teacher morale and stability are high. Monroe often has a student waiting list. Suspensions are down. And it's obvious that at Monroe, there is a strong sense of community, created by dedicated parents and faculty members.

                  But as teachers-union president Adam Urbanski said to me last week, there's more to consider than a sense of community. "I respect their views very much," said Urbanski. "But a sense of community is a weak substitute for results."

                  "We don't have a single middle school that works," he said.

                  Urbanski, who says he was open to trying middle schools 15 years ago, supports the move back to junior-senior highs. "Find me an urban middle school that is successful," he added, "and I'll change my mind."

                  Monroe parents are urging the district to move slowly. "Where is the data showing that 7-12 schools work better than middle schools?" says their press release. "We would like to see data demonstrating that switching a functioning 6-8 school to 7-12 will improve academic performance or other elements of student life."

                  Given the history, there's a temptation to feel that the district is simply moving the deck chairs around. I don't think it is. I think it has little choice. Overcrowding has become so serious in middle and high schools that the district must move some students out of those schools. If it does nothing, the district projects, next year there will be an additional 350 students in middle schools --- and 700 more in high schools.

                  The district can either move the 6th graders back to the elementary schools --- which have enough space for them --- or it can rent buildings, hire more teachers and administrators, create new schools. It will cost more, the district says, to keep the current structure than to change it.

                  Giuffrida calls the reconfiguration plan a "practical response to an immediate problem." She's right.

                  The district also makes a reasonable case that the reconfiguration in itself could help some students. Intuition says that sixth graders will fare better in the cozier surroundings of a small elementary school. And the district has some data supporting that hunch: In the 2000-2001 school year, for instance, 85 percent of the long-term suspensions of sixth graders were from middle schools. And district officials say that sixth-grade attendance is better in elementary schools than in middle schools.

                  "A higher percentage of teacher requests for transfers," says Rivera's redesign document, "come from those wishing to leave middle schools." Rochester's middle-school system simply puts too many young adolescents into large buildings, district officials say.

                  In addition, district officials say that the stability of being in the same school for six years --- from 7th through 12th grade --- will help the older students. Quantitative data on the benefits of that set-up is soft, and education experts give it qualified support, noting that structure alone is not enough to improve academic performance.

                  But the move makes plenty of intuitive sense. "Families, students, and staff get to build familiarity with each other and get to build relationships over an extended period of time," says Giuffrida. "Anyone who thinks that's unimportant is kidding themselves."

The district seems to be moving cautiously and thoughtfully. In their 117-page plan and another 11 pages of Q&A (available at www.rcsdk12.org), Rivera and his staff set out a strong rationale for the change. There are, however, plenty of unanswered questions. While district officials say the operating costs will be less under the new system, they're still calculating the capital costs: renovations, labs, athletic facilities, and the like.

                  And under Rivera's plan, there will be more schools serving high-school students than there are now --- with fewer high-school-age students in each. Will the district then have the problem it tried to solve 15 years ago: too few students in a school to justify offering Advance Placement courses and extensive electives?

                  "There's no contemplation that current programs will be disrupted," Brown says. "I don't necessarily believe all our schools have identical offerings, but that doesn't mean all our offerings won't be comparable and sound."

                  Board member Bolgen Vargas has expressed concern over the reconfiguration's effect on programs like the International Baccalaureate and Montessori. But at this point, it seems budgetary concerns will prove more of a threat to those offerings, and to the availability of AP courses, than reconfiguration will.

                  Most important is the district's warning that reconfiguring schools alone won't work educational miracles. Clearly, something has to be done about achievement. While the latest reports show improvement in Rochester's elementary schools, this is a familiar pattern. For too many students, something terrible happens to that improvement after sixth grade. It was true 15 years ago. It is true now.

                  There's no shortage of theories about how to boost student achievement. School-district officials were certain 15 years ago that middle schools would help. They did not.

                  Union president Adam Urbanski and others say that's because the district didn't follow through, didn't provide the services and programs that the middle-school plan was supposed to include. The reason: They would cost too much.

                  "I don't fault those who proposed it," Urbanski said last week. "I'm simply trying to be rational and realistic about the expectations and the reality."

                  (I do worry, though. Was the problem solely money 15 years ago? Or was something else --- poor follow-through, poor training, poor leadership --- at work? And will that "something" undermine the promise of this move as well? For years, teachers and principals have complained that the district starts grand new projects and doesn't follow through, that it skimps on training when it initiates new programs.)

                  A district report issued two years ago laid out recommendations --- "essential elements" --- for improving middle schools. Here they are: Shared vision for student learning; a challenging, rigorous curriculum; skilled, knowledgeable teachers; strong leadership; positive school climate; support systems for students; professional development; active school-family-community partnerships."

                  Well, yes. Of course. But it takes more than good intentions to get those things.

                  Rivera's redesign plan lists other initiatives the districts hopes to carry out. Edison will be divided into four schools. Douglass Middle School will become a prep school for Edison. The district will focus on Lofton --- again --- to try to find a way to provide a good education for the district's most at-risk older students.

                  And the district wants to establish "early-college high school programs" located on college campuses."

                  It's all good stuff, no doubt. But none of it will be free.

"I don't believe that 7-12 is a preferable way to, let's say, small middle schools," says Urbanski. "If we could have small middle schools, I think they would work better than large 7-12 schools."

                  Every school official I've interviewed over the past 30 years has insisted that small schools are critical. But the district cannot afford to build small schools of any type. Constructing them and staffing them would be too expensive. And so the district has continued to build big schools.

                  "We have enabled ourselves to remain in denial through such failed strategies as 'houses' and 'clusters,'" says Urbanski, to try to create small "schools within schools."

                  (And, indeed, Rivera's redesign plan proposes creating "autonomous" small schools within some of the district's larger buildings.)

                  The larger question, then, is the extent to which the community is willing to support its schools.

                  The fact remains that the Rochester district needs more money. All urban school districts need more money --- to train teachers, reduce class sizes, and offer a host of ancillary services and programs to try to counter the effects of poverty and unstable homes.

                  I'm not going to argue the problems of the Janey era again. As this newspaper has said before, the School Board and former Superintendent Cliff Janey made serious errors. But they did not cause the entire budget crisis of 2001-2002.

                  Money alone won't do the job that needs doing. I remain convinced that we'll never offer a decent chance for a good education for all city children until we break up the concentration of poverty that our schools have to deal with. But it is hypocritical to insist that the schools do a better job and not also insist that they have enough money to hire the best teachers and principals and provide all the other things that can make a difference.

                  The state's urban districts ought to band together and mobilize their citizens to insist on substantially more state funding --- and more equitable funding. And city mayors (yes indeed) and business leaders ought to be right there with them.

                  For the basics of the plan --- to simply move sixth graders back to elementary schools and meld junior and senior highs into a 7-12 structure --- Rivera's not talking about a lot more resources. But to go beyond that, to address academic challenges as well as overcrowding: That will cost money.

                  When Rochester adopted its middle-school plan in the 1980s, says School Board member Rob Brown, "what failed was the community's deployment of resources."

                  "You can't implement any program that counts on an increase in resources, because there's no community willing to spend more resources on these children," Brown says. When middle schools were being championed, "they contemplated increased counseling, increases in programs; they contemplated all kinds of special enhancements for the middle schools --- programs to help children overcome some of the barriers to their learning --- but it relied on increased resources."

                  Will this year, and the next few years during which the reconfiguration will be implemented, be any different? Brown, for one, is less than optimistic.

                  "Increased resources are never going to go to the poorest children," he says. "That's America in action."

                  This article includes reporting by Chris Busby.

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