Seventh grade ain’t easy any way you package it.
By JOE ROBERTSON
The Kansas City Star
Mikayla Phillips understands, and the 13-year-old doesn’t know the half of all the vexing issues that Kansas City Public Schools is dealing with as it prepares to remake the way its serves children in those turbulent middle school years.
The district plans to reopen middle schools again for seventh- and eighth-graders. It has high schools that probably will become underenrolled because of the change, a haunting history of past middle-school failures and the still-lurking threat of student transfers under a pending state law that could scuttle Kansas City’s plans.
But Mikayla knows the key.
“Talk to them,” she said, meaning the future seventh-graders. “Sometimes kids just want to let it out.”
Nothing in the complicated plans for August 2014’s reopening of Northeast and Central middle schools is more important, said Cynthia Johnson, the lead principal and project coordinator.
The district has weighed research and surveys as it invested many months in its middle school plan. Building renovations, team-teaching strategies and outreach to homes and the community aim at the same core mission that Johnson says will bring success where the district struggled or failed in the past.
“All children dream and hope, no matter their background, no matter where they come from,” Johnson said. “The safety net is relationships.”
Personalized education. Making a big school feel small.
The district is returning to the structure of separate middle schools it had through 2006. That was when the district, under then-superintendent Anthony Amato, began closing most of its middle schools and moving middle-level grades to elementary schools to make K-8 buildings.
Just as that transition was complete in 2010, Amato’s successor, John Covington, launched a massive school-closings plan. To keep from closing half-empty high schools, Covington moved seventh- and eighth-graders into their own wings in the high schools.
Neither move was popular. Too many parents were not comfortable having middle-schoolers in the elementary schools. And many parents did not like sending their young adolescents into the intimidating high schools.
But the district doesn’t want the same middle schools it had in 2006.
Those buildings housed the most behavior incidents in the district. And when the demands of the federal No Child Left Behind Act in the mid-2000s began leveling sanctions on struggling schools, Kansas City’s middle schools were among the first to fall.
“What exactly are we going to do differently this time?” school board vice president Crispin Rea asked administrators last week.
Some of the strategies for next year are in practice now, as best as can be done with seventh- and eighth-graders housed in high schools.
On his own, Nick Burgmeier, a seventh-grade math teacher, leads raucous after-school soccer games twice a week in the East High School gym.
“It’s like they’re playing for the World Cup every time,” he said.
More importantly, Burgmeier opens himself to the students so they will come talk — whether after a game or at lunch or in the hall — in ways they might not in an hourlong math classroom with 25 other students.
“No matter what happened the day before, every day is a fresh day,” Burgmeier said. “You can see they have this hunger to learn.”
Deantae Long, 12, plays in those soccer games at East. It was scary, he said, venturing into that cavernous, three-story building with all of those high school giants. But when he talks of how he’s made it this far, Deantae singles out several of his teachers by name, like Burgmeier.
“They always put me on track,” he said.
The old middle schools didn’t do those kinds of things very well, said Vickie Murillo, an assistant superintendent in the district who was a middle school and high school principal when the district was struggling with its middle schools.
“Before, they were like junior high schools,” Murillo told the board. “We did not have the teaming in place. It was very unsuccessful.”
When students cast about without important relationships with adults, the consequences are potentially damaging, even destructive, Johnson said.
The middle school years draw students to a pivotal point. They can rise toward “high school, college and beyond,” Johnson said, “or (toward) disengagement and dropping out.”
The stakes rise when children come from poor and often transient homes, or when they are new to their school culture and need to learn English.
The middle school model that Kansas City is bringing back would embed the best practices that continue to make the concept of the middle school the most common approach used across the country, said Dru Tomlin, the director of middle level services for the Association of Middle Level Education.
“At this age, children are going through the most rapid cognitive and physical changes in their lives other than after birth,” Tomlin said.
Kansas City will gather students into “neighborhoods” of no more than 120, sharing the same group of teachers in core subjects who will have common planning time to share what they know of their students’ lives and progress.
Each teacher also will have a smaller group of students every day in an advisory class that is designed to give students regular personal time with that teacher.
The schools at Northeast, 4904 Independence Ave, and Central, 3611 Linwood Blvd., will be renovated to include several open spaces where students can casually gather in comfortable surroundings to collaborate or share experiences.
Superintendent Steve Green has determined that middle schools need to be part of the district’s overall revival plan, even though the transition presents other problems.
The district is reopening two schools for the project but has no intentions of closing any of the high schools, Green said.
In the long run, Green hopes the district will show it has inviting middle schools and it will stem what historically has been an exodus of families from the district after the elementary school years.
Some of the high schools will have vacant spaces. The district is exploring the possibility of partnerships with agencies or community groups that would rent empty spaces that could make the high schools more versatile neighborhood centers, Green said.
The district also has to worry about what will come of a pending law that, if it is put into effect for the 2014-2015 school year, will allow families to transfer their children out of currently unaccredited Kansas City Public Schools, with the cost of tuition and transportation put on Kansas City.
A challenge to the law by some area districts is awaiting a ruling from the Missouri Supreme Court, expected in December or early next year. Lawmakers will have another chance to try to amend the law or eliminate it in the General Assembly’s 2014 session.
Either way, the work toward middle schools is carrying on, Johnson said.
“We’re making villages of hope.”