By Jane Stancill
RALEIGH — Education leaders from across the South gathered here for a two-day summit on improving middle school – where students often stumble on the path to high school completion.
The Southern Regional Education Board’s Middle Grades Commission is led by Gov. Bev Perdue, who is the chairwoman of the Atlanta-based nonpartisan think tank. The 35-member panel kicked off its work this week and is expected to issue recommendations by the middle of next year.
In charging the commission, Perdue emphasized that middle grade years should be “inspirational and motivational and at the end of the day, a child may be able to look back when they’re 30 or 40 or 50 and say, ‘That was the turning point in my life.’ “
Too often though, students fall behind and get bored in middle school, education leaders say. A report by the SREB last year said that while some states have made significant gains on school achievement in early grades, the progress stalls in the middle grades. And once students lose momentum and start high school unprepared, they are at risk of dropping out.
The panel is expected to focus on a variety of issues, including boosting student reading skills, preparing eighth-graders for Algebra I and improving training specifically for middle school teachers.
Judith Rizzo, a commission member and executive director of the Durham-based James B. Hunt Jr. Institute for Educational Leadership and Policy, said educators talk about “best practices” but continue with mediocre programs for teachers. “How do we stop doing professional development that doesn’t work?” she asked.
The key may be to engage teachers by giving them a common mission to work toward, said commission member Jerry Weast, superintendent of Montgomery County schools in Maryland. Weast, a former superintendent in Durham and Guilford County, has received national attention for his district’s push to close the achievement gap between white students and black and Hispanic students.
The goal of going to college became a mantra in Montgomery schools, a “north star” that guided students and teachers alike. “You’ve got to do this in a way that engages teachers,” he said.
State Board of Education Chairman Bill Harrison said middle school issues tend to get pushed to the back burner as schools zero in on early grades and high school diplomas.
Children reach early adolescence in middle school, and developmental changes often overshadow academic issues during those years, he said.
“That’s when they really make the decision about dropping out of school,” said Harrison, a member of the commission. “It may not be a conscious decision. … Middle school is kind of the last opportunity to turn them around.”