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Middle School Initiative Challenges Education as Usual

When Placida Rodriguez’s two sons were approaching middle school age, she knew that she didn’t want them to attend their neighborhood junior high.

“Every year the test scores in Bushwick go down,” she says.

Like other concerned parents, Rodriguez wants her children to be academically and socially challenged. “Kids need to feel passionate about going to school,” she continues. “In some places the teachers don’t care, or they do care but don’t have the resources. In some middle schools the students can’t make experiments because there are no science labs. These students never get to see how good a science class can be.”

Rodriguez is a parent organizer with Make the Road, a Brooklyn community group whose mission is the promotion of “economic justice, equity and opportunity for all New Yorkers.” She understands the power of advocacy and managed to get her sons into two of the finest middle schools in the borough: J.H.S. 383 and J.H.S. 318.

But what of those with less savvy?

Educational experts know that kids’ interest in school begins to lag in sixth grade due to social adjustment problems and academic difficulties. They also know that students without a solid academic foundation flounder, and often fail, when they get to high school.

According to a statement issued by the New York City Coalition for Educational Justice, a group of nine organizations that came together in the Fall of 2006 to focus on racial and class bias in middle schools, “All parents want their children to graduate high school and succeed in college. Unfortunately, this dream is far from reality for thousands of NYC families whose children are attending middle schools that are failing.”

CEJ’s philosophy is simple: If you improve middle school education and get kids hooked on learning, they’ll perform better later. Their first approach was to study the differences between high and low performing programs, comparing schools with standardized test scores that fell below the state average with those that fell above. Their findings were predictable. Students in rigorous academic programs—including Regent’s classes in the 8th grade—have more confidence when starting high school, and are more likely to graduate in four years with a Regent’s diploma—New York state’s certification of academic excellence.

CEJ also discovered a stark economic and racial achievement gap. Only 27 percent of Latino and 29 percent of African American kids finished high school with Regents honors in 2007. Worse, they found that the lowest performing schools were 100 percent Black and Latino.

Once again, says CEJ, results hearken back to middle schools. Last year’s scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a test given to all 8th graders, revealed that fewer than half of the city’s kids read, write or compute at grade level. In low-income communities of color in East Brooklyn, for example, the rate plummeted to 25 percent. Among Black and Latino 8th graders citywide, the rate is 30 percent. Small wonder, then, that Regents completion rates are so dismal and that many teens never finish their high school educations in these communities.

Clearly, something has to be done—and fast.

To their credit, City officials seem to get it. A report released by the Middle School Task Force of the City Council in July 2007 concludes that, “If our students are to succeed in post-secondary education or training, make the transition to productive careers, and contribute to their communities as thoughtful and informed citizens, the foundation must be adequately reinforced throughout the middle grades.”

Toward that end, the Department of Education has contributed $15 million—$5 million a year for three years—to improve 51 low-performing programs in the five boroughs, 14 of them in Brooklyn. Most schools received their allocation—roughly $100,000 each—in November 2007. Principals then decide how the money will be spent, focusing on faculty development and academic enrichment, including extended day programs. What’s more, the City has also established an Office of Middle Grade Initiatives and has promised to offer Regents classes and build science labs in every middle school by 2010.

I.S. 302, a low-performing school in Cypress Hills, is one of the grantees funded by the Initiative. “Research has proven that where students have extracurricular interests, it enhances academics,” says principal Lisa Linder, who has been at the school since last September. Linder is using the extra funds to start a school band, create a drama program, and teach dance and visual arts classes. A Saturday enrichment program has also been launched.

“When I got to the school and started poking around I discovered a plethora of instruments stored away behind the stage,” she says. “I’ve partnered with Creative Educational Services to start a school band and we were able to give instruments to 160 kids. Initially, the students were reluctant to get involved, but they’re now really excited. Creative Educational Services went from class to class to get the students interested. Some of the students didn’t know what a trumpet was, what a flute was, before this. We’ve also bought 30 keyboards that are affixed to desks so that we can teach the piano.”

While it is too soon to know if Linder’s approach will raise test scores, she is encouraged by skyrocketing attendance rates and increased parental involvement since the Initiative was announced.

The goal, of course, is for each of the City’s 588 middle schools to offer classes that capture student interest and improve critical thinking. “This is a civil rights issue,” says Zakiyah Ansari, a CEJ parent leader and mother of eight from Brownsville. “Our kids can do the work but they need an even playing field: qualified teachers, up-to-date books, science labs, and art, sports and music classes.”

“Teacher retention is also key,” adds Esther Bu, a CEJ member active in Cypress Hills Advocates for Education. Bu says she realized there was a problem several years ago, when she discovered that most middle schools teachers are inexperienced; fewer than half have spent more than five years in a classroom. “When kids see different teachers every year, they say, forget it. These teachers don’t really care about us. They won’t be here next year anyway, so why bother?” Bu supports mentorship and in-service training, and supports Lead teacher programs that pair experienced faculty with neophytes.

In addition to pedagogy, Beth Baylin, a Park Slope therapist who specializes in treating children and adolescents, urges educators to keep social and emotional development front and center. “It’s not just about increasing the money,” she says. “When a kid comes to middle school, it’s a new environment and issues of safety are very important. They may not have safety at home, so emotional safety in school is crucial. Middle school age is the time when we learn that the world is a complex place and we begin to find our place in it. It is also a time when, biologically, the pre-frontal cortex is developing. This helps us think, not just act impulsively. Educators are often preoccupied with curricular concerns so that kids can pass the tests. They sometimes forget that students can’t attend to this if their emotional needs are not being met. Teachers need to think about children empathetically, helping them to bond with caring figures who believe in them.”

Make the Road Parent Advocate Placida Rodriguez wholeheartedly agrees, “Kids go down if they don’t have support and a way to spend their energy. Parents, teachers and principals know that every school needs more counselors and social workers.” Educating the whole child, she adds, requires instructors to focus on both emotions and intellect. In the end, $5 million, or even $15 million, may improve the worst middle schools, but a lot more is needed to really improve the learning environment for New York City teens.


Eleanor J. Bader


The Brooklyn Rail

MAR 2008

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