— DOTHAN, Ala. (AP) — Middle school represents a major time of transition for students, as they adapt to more rigorous coursework and time management demands, all while they're going through various developmental and socialization changes.
Many students who did well in elementary school seem to hit a brick wall when it comes to academic growth in these years, but getting them to push through these problems is essential to avoiding bigger academic and discipline problems in the future, including dropping out of school.
"What schools are trying to do is help students become independent thinkers," said Peggy Fillio, a Southern Regional Education Board improvement specialist. "If they don't, they'll live with their parents until they're 30."
Dothan's middle schools appear to be bucking the trend toward lower performance in middle school years, as test scores for middle school students have risen steadily in recent years. Overall, the gap between fifth and sixth grade reading and math scores on the Alabama Reading and Math Test are minimal, according to Southern Regional Education Board statistics. The SREB says 92.98 percent of Dothan fifth grade students scored proficient or better on state reading tests, as opposed to 92.5 percent of sixth grade students. SREB figures say 94.99 percent of Dothan fifth grade students scored proficient or better on state math tests, as opposed to 80.55 percent of sixth grade students.
This is no accident, according to Southern Regional Education Board specialists who have been working with the local school system to improve middle schools. SREB specialists have been providing local middle schools with leadership and instructional training for school leaders and principals and have also been implementing other programs to help local middle schools appeal to student interests.
Maria Johnson, assistant principal at Beverlye Magnet School, said students face a number of challenges when they come to middle school. For starters, students are going through physical changes linked to puberty causing difficulties in behavior. Socialization changes are also occurring, as parents become less important to students and their peers become more important.
The setup of middle schools also is a big change for students leaving elementary school. Students go from having just one teacher to having several teachers. Students are expected to be more responsible for their work and organized.
"It takes them two weeks just to figure out how to use their lockers," Johnson said.
The coursework is also more complex, as students are asked to apply the skills they learned in elementary school to solve problems. If students did not master these skills, the gaps in their education begin to become evident. Johnson said many students who breezed through elementary school work struggle in middle school because they're forced to study for the first time. Because they never had to work for their grades before, many bright children don't have the skills or patience to do this, creating academic difficulties.
According to a report by the SREB, students who lose interest in school during the middle grades are at an elevated risk of stumbling in the ninth grade and eventually dropping out of high school.
"The vast majority of dropouts are 'freshmores' - students who are repeating ninth grade," said Steve Broome, also an SREB improvement specialist.
Students who drop out have dramatically lowered expectations than those who complete high school, often earning much less than their more educated peers and being more likely to run afoul of the law.
SREB research says that by the middle grades students are able to make connections between their school work and their interests and talents. Finding a way to take advantage of those connections will help educators better engage and interest their students, helping them overcome academic struggles they have in middle school, preparing them for success in high school and college or career technical training programs later.
Fillio said providing students with more project-based learning that incorporates skills learned in various classes helps make those lessons more relevant to students, as they see the value in applying those lessons to solve a problem. SREB specialists have been working with Dothan middle school teachers to help them collaborate more on how they present lessons to students, creating links between various subject areas.
Providing teachers and administrators with training on how to analyze and use data gathered from standardized tests is also important to helping them better tailor instruction to individual student needs, Fillio said.
Catching students who are struggling is also essential to improving middle schools. Broome said that most students likely to run into problems in high school can be identified in sixth grade.
According to a Johns Hopkins University report, a sixth-grader in a high-poverty school who misses a month or more of class in a school year, or has recurring mild misbehavior issues, or is failing math or English, has a greatly reduced chance of graduating high school on time or a year late.
Broome said identifying these students and working with them is essential to improving student outcomes.
Johnson also said that summer bridge programs that provide rising sixth graders with an introduction to middle school life have been helpful in aiding new students to adapt to the increased demands of middle school. At summer bridge programs sponsored by the Dothan City Schools, students learn study skills as well as time management and school culture lessons about the middle schools they will attend in the fall. Johnson said the introduction helps make the transition easier for students who attend the program.