by Jeremy Adams, M.Ed.
Head of Middle School
There aren’t a lot of people who look back fondly on their middle school years. A fair amount of us remember the angst and social anxiety of adolescence, combined with an increase in academic challenges, especially when compared to our elementary experiences. For those of us now parenting a teenager the fun doesn’t stop on that end of things either. Many teens are seeking independence at a time when parents are not always ready to let go. Adolescents can resent adult interference and begin looking to their peers for guidance instead. Yet even though this can be a challenging time for students and parents alike, the good news is we can anticipate these difficulties and plan accordingly.
Historically, many elementary schools started as K-8 schools, sometimes as an all-in-one classroom, depending on population and locale. It was only in the early to mid-20th century that junior high schools (targeting 7th & 8th grade) and middle schools (usually 6th through 8th grade) came to be created to relieve overcrowding in the nation's high schools. The goal of many of these new intermediary schools was to raise the academic achievement of students at that particular age and better prepare them for high school. Unfortunately, instead of moving ahead, students ended up languishing or even dropping in achievement during this period of schooling (see additional info below). This remains the norm across many middle and junior high schools even today.
The underlying disadvantage of these models is inherent in their original design. By overly focusing on replicating a high school setting for children who are not yet ready for high school, they fall short in achieving their aims of preparing students. In essence, these models ignore the developmental stage of adolescence and focus on treating young students like older students. Not surprisingly, in addition to failing to achieve their academic goals, these types of learning structures have generally not supported the social-emotional growth of students, which is critical to their long-term success in school and life. Their design may even contribute to the peer-centric focus of students at this age and reduce their connectedness to adults. It is this connectedness which often correlates to current and future student success.
For some schools choosing to remain or return to a K-8 model, there are a variety of benefits that bear out in research. First and foremost is that many K-8 schools are smaller than their counterparts. Instead of having bigger middle schools that pull large numbers of students from various elementary sites, K-8 schools typically maintain similar class sizes in their upper grades as their elementary programs. Also, this consistency of students and smaller-size grade levels can lead to closer relationships with adults, often with adults who know students across multiple years. In addition, cross-grade K-8 schools have the opportunity to highlight middle school students as leaders and role models for younger students who share the same campus. At Almaden Country Day School (ACDS), our older students regularly interact and build relationships with younger children in our Big Buddies program. This cultivates a caring, connected student body not possible in larger middle and junior high schools.
While there are definite social-emotional benefits at K-8 schools, there are also academic benefits. Teachers and administrators can identify and create curricula that provide a consistent learning experience for students across both elementary and middle school. Programs that require more advanced skills later on lay foundations for student learning in lower grades. Students who might struggle or need more challenge are identified and their needs met across grade levels. Instead of individual information being passed between schools via anonymous exchanges of student data, conversations about students happen between teachers on the same campus, making the bridging from elementary to middle school stronger.
All of these benefits of K-8 schools can be found at ACDS, which also includes a preschool and junior kindergarten program. Students who start attending our Early Childhood Education (ECE) classes and graduate from ACDS as 8th graders can benefit from up to 11 years of a consistent educational philosophy and school-wide instructional mission. They grow in a developmentally-appropriate curriculum that promotes discovery and understanding rather than memorization and acceleration. They are provided with learning opportunities that are both stimulating and engaging, like Project Based-Learning (PBL), science labs, opportunities to work in our maker’s space, and myriad electives including drama, fine arts, STEM, languages, speech, media and much more. In our classrooms, students often work in teams much like they will when they head out into the workforce. In fact, we have alumni who return and state that their time at ACDS greatly helped them in this aspect of their current jobs.
Our goal at ACDS is to provide relevant learning experiences for our students that provide both high levels of opportunities for learning and low stakes for consequences. In this P-8 environment, mistakes are considered part of learning, contributing to our students’ growth mindsets and resilience.
Unlike a middle school model that operates like a mini high school and over-emphasizes subject matter, at ACDS teachers are attuned and committed to children's social-emotional needs as well as their delivery of rigorous academic content. Because our students are taught from the early grades how to treat one another with respect, kindness, and empathy, ACDS features a joyful campus atmosphere that is a hallmark of our school. Multiple teachers who know children across multiple grades help instill this ethos in them. Our students thrive in a more natural, family-like community, surrounded by older and younger peers and friends. They experience a variety of class groupings that promote caring and inclusion. In the ACDS Big Buddies program, class meetings, Advocacy in middle school and in day-to-day interactions, students are tasked with caring for each other and learning to connect. At ACDS, children enjoy a longer childhood because they're sheltered from risky behaviors and excessive peer pressure. We have found that all of this social-emotional support serves to enhance their academic abilities, confidence, and self-reliance.
In this humble educator/parent/administrator’
Resources for more information about middle school structures and experience:
Rockoff, Jonah, et al. "How and why middle schools harm student achievement." EducationNext, Fall 2010, https://educationnext.org/
West, Martin R., et al. "The middle school plunge." EducationNext, Spring 2012, https://www.educationnext.org/
Sparks, Sarah. "Study links academic setbacks to middle school transition." Education Week, 28 November 2011, https://www.edweek.org/ew/
"Achievement declines when students change schools." Educational Research Newsletter and Webinars, November 1998, https://www.ernweb.com/
New York University. "Attending a middle vs K-8 school matters for student outcomes." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 16 October 2017, https://www.sciencedaily.com/
Needell Hollander, Claire. "Why K-8 schools may be better for middle school students." New York Times, 18 December 2012, https://www.nytimes.com/
Pierson Yecke, Cheri. "Mayhem in the middle: Why we should shift to K-8." Educational Leadership. ASCD, April 2006, http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational-leadership/apr06/vol63/num07/Mayhem-in-the-Middle@-Why-We-Should-Shift-to-K%E2%80%938.aspx
Resources for more information about adolescent and adult connectedness:
Blum, Robert W. "A case for school connectedness." Educational Leadership. ASCD, April 2005, http://www.ascd.org/
Klein, Lauren. "Scratch a happy adult, find a socially connected childhood." Greater Good Magazine. University of California, Berkeley. 12 December 2013, https://greatergood.berkeley.
Mentoring Resource Center. "Redefining your success: The role of adolescent connectedness in demonstrating mentoring impact." Education Northwest. U.S. Department of Education, May/June 2009, https://educationnorthwest.