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The Middle School Muddle


Q. I've never liked the middle-school concept. Right when they are in those difficult preadolescent years, the "tweens" get lost in the shuffle. It seems as though the peer pressure and emotional abuse among tweens is rampant when they are conglomerated like that, without any kids who are younger or older to balance things out. The middle-school years tend to be academic wastelands, too, right when we should be really motivating and encouraging youth in their academic and career pursuits. Educators say you can't expect tweens to focus on academics; as a parent, I say baloney to that. Academics is just what they need, to get over the emotional whitewater of that age! I think the K-8 and 9-12 concept is much better for kids. Does anybody else see the problems with "junior highs" that I do?


Yes. It's already happening in New York City, Baltimore, Cleveland, Cincinnati and Philadelphia. Among others, the Pittsburgh Public Schools may join urban districts nationwide that are reducing middle schools in favor of more kindergarten through eighth-grade schools. Their study has found that middle-school students feel more socially isolated and report more physical and emotional problems than their age-peers in 11 other Western nations.


"When you make international comparisons and get results like ours, that's a wake-up call," said Jaana Juvonen, a UCLA psychology professor who co-authored the study for the Rand Corporation.


The study suggests that fewer school transitions would be easier on students. It also found that although math, reading and science scores have improved among middle-school students since the 1970s, American students still lag behind their international peers.


Eighth-graders who attend K-8 schools in Pittsburgh score an average of 28 points higher in math and 96 points higher in reading than their middle-school counterparts, according to PSSA scores in 2003.


School officials believe returning to K-8 schools would improve academic performance and would reduce the number of behavioral problems among middle-grade students, said Nancy McGinley, executive director of the Philadelphia Education Fund, a nonprofit organization that raises money for the district.


In Pittsburgh, Dowd said the school district has trouble retaining children in the middle years.


About 77 percent of the city's elementary-age children attend Pittsburgh Public Schools. The number drops to 67 percent, however, when children reach the middle-school grades but climbs to 81 percent in the high school years.


Schools in the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh always have used the K-8 format, said Superintendent Robert Paserba, explaining that having older children in elementary schools serve as role models for younger students.


Homework: This bold and brassy columnist blames the colleges of education for dreaming up middle schools, which she says have failed dramatically:


By Susan Darst Williams Ages & Stages 140 2008


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