Stuck in the Middle

As students begin their adolescent years, middle school can be a time of monumental change. Yet, too often, these schools seem to fail their pupils. Here, we spotlight the local middle schools that are making the grade, and examine why others are not.

August 2012

In one of Denver’s most desirable neighborhoods, about a dozen blocks east of Wash Park, Cory Elementary School and Merrill Middle School sit so close to each other that they share a playground. The similarities end there. Cory has extraordinarily high rankings on the Colorado Growth Model in reading, math, and writing; less than 9 percent of its students are eligible for free and reduced lunches (FRL). More than 80 percent of Merrill’s kids are FRL eligible, and it has posted average growth but underwhelming proficiency due to a large non-English-speaking demographic.

Call it the Cory-Merrill Conundrum: Two adjacent public schools, tucked into an affluent Denver area, illustrate a gulf between middle schools and their elementary—and high school—counterparts that’s become sadly predictable. “It’s commonly thought that middle schools are a weakness across the district,” says Sara Singh, a longtime Denver Public Schools elementary teacher. This is true beyond Denver—and throughout the country. Thanks to emerging research that shows the criticality of early literacy in determining future academic success, most communities have carefully crafted programs, schools—even laws—dedicated to early childhood learning. Naturally, high schools explicitly strive—via test prep courses, vocational curriculums, and career initiatives—to help kids graduate and prepare them for college or the workforce. Middle school, however, seems less about equipping kids for success than just getting them to high school unscathed.

Not every middle school is failing to serve its students, of course; as the accompanying charts detail, numerous Denver-area middle schools are successfully educating their pupils. Still, middle schools, like the proverbial middle child, tend to get comparatively ignored.

Part of the problem is consistency. A Denver-area middle school might comprise grades five through eight, six through eight, seven and eight, or seven through nine, not to mention the occasional K–8 and K–12 schools. Such a broad definition makes it difficult to tailor programs that equally cater to all early teens, particularly at two-year schools where year one is about transitioning in and year two is about transitioning out. “They’re at an age where some of them still want to play with LEGOs and others want to spend their time in entirely different ways,” says a veteran middle school teacher in Jefferson County who requested anonymity. “They want to be treated like grown-ups but still have the benefits of being a kid.”

Further, middle schools are tasked with aggregating kids from different elementary schools that often have disparate cultural and academic profiles. Merrill, for example, has few Cory alums because many Cory parents have “choiced out” their children to middle schools with different demographics and achievement scores; these kids typically end up in higher-performing DPS schools, or in charter or private schools. (About 70 percent of Merrill students are minorities, and more than half are designated as English language learners; Cory, on the other hand, is 79 percent white.) “Middle schools throw together tremendously diverse populations,” Singh says. “By the time you figure out who the kids are and what their needs are, they’re almost ready for high school.”

Although no one would question the value of early childhood literacy or preparing high school kids for college or jobs, other investigations maintain that the relative lack of attention on middle school may be having a hugely detrimental effect. In 2008, ACT, which administers the eponymous college entrance exams, published “The Forgotten Middle,” a study that showed that overall eighth-grade proficiency levels “have a larger impact on college and career readiness than anything that happens academically in high school.” The report recommended an intensified focus on preparing students in the “upper elementary grades,” i.e., middle school, for the work they’ll face in high school.

In this age of increased accountability, perhaps loftier expectations would ensure that kids don’t drift during their so-called tween years. “Even though there are kids going to high school who haven’t demonstrated that they’re ready, nine times out of 10 they’ll still move on to the next level,” says the Jeffco teacher, who wonders if schools should be more demanding about how—and whether—middle school kids graduate to high school. “When you set high expectations for all kids and you have a heterogeneous mix, it can be very powerful for everyone involved.”