Derry Area Middle School praised for efforts to improve education
For two weeks at the end of every school year, the Derry Area Middle School shuts down a wing of the building. Hallways become collaborative workspaces where eighth graders prepare the final projects of their middle school careers.
Students debate the death penalty, make animations illustrating the tax on junk food and refine their arguments on the ethics of zoos — tasks that cross subject areas and test skills, including teamwork, communication and time management, that students will need in high school.
"This project, this 'Great Debate' that we're doing, is helping us make that transition, and helps us learn how to work together, get into the focus of researching, and do all this work that we may have with such little time in the high school, or maybe even college, that we'll have to get used to," said eighth-grader Abigail Bolen.
Derry was recognized for this and other efforts to shake up the traditional middle school experience on Thursday by the National Forum to Accelerate Middle-Grades Reform, and is the only school in Westmoreland County to be recognized as a School to Watch in Pennsylvania. The district's middle school is one of 38 across the state to hold the designation, but one of only four to be added to the list this school year.
The program recognizes high-performing middle schools that exhibit excellent performance on a written application and an in-person visit by a team of judges. The district received notice of the award in January.
"Right now, schools are stressed with testing and results," said Bruce Vosburgh, Schools to Watch state director for Pennsylvania.
The award recognizes academic excellence, but emphasizes the importance of building strong relationships among administrators, teachers and students.
"Once you have that piece in place, other things begin to follow," Vosburgh said, explaining that students perform well academically when they feel well-supported.
Derry was recognized for programs like the eighth-grade projects that promote literacy and writing skills across subject areas. The projects also help students develop soft skills while giving them a chance to learn how to work with minimal supervision from teachers.
"I think that's the biggest benefit to this," said Leanne Shaw, eighth-grade math teacher at Derry, adding that these are skills students will need as they move to high school.
"We give them a little bit of freedom at the end of eighth grade, before they leave the building," she said.
Derry isn't the only school district working to improve the middle school experience. Experts say that efforts to restructure middle school are part of a broader trend in education to put more emphasis on the social and emotional development of students, while easing pressure to perform on standardized tests.
"We know that you first must pay attention to the child's well-being before you can even get into academic achievement or learning," said Jason Margolis, professor of instruction and leadership at Duquesne University.
To put it simply, middle school is a tough time for everyone. Students' bodies and minds are changing as they reach puberty. They're growing up and forming identities. Friendships are forged and broken — sometimes multiple times in the same day — all while students are learning how to manage a new set of teachers, meet higher academic expectations and trying to remember their locker combination.
According to Margolis, the traditional junior high school model fails most students because it doesn't put enough emphasis on the relationships and support systems middle school-aged students need. If they are switching classes every 40 minutes, eight or nine times a day, it's hard to form relationships with teachers and classmates.
The Hempfield Area School District, for example, is starting a new middle school program this fall.
"When our restructuring committee started looking at this, we didn't want to look at just the schedule," said Mark Gross, assistant superintendent of secondary education at Hempfield. "We wanted to look at what makes a good middle school."
After a year's worth of research and planning, the district decided to do away with the traditional 40-minute class periods across the district's three middle schools in favor of extended, 80-minute block periods for math, English, science and social studies classes.
In addition, each grade will be divided up into teams. All of the students on a team will be taught by the same four or five teachers. In education circles, this practice is known as "teaming" and is intended to help teachers better support students.
"We didn't do this because people were doing poorly," Gross said. "We realized that the district as not giving them the structure that they need to go into even greater depth with the kids."
Administrators and teachers from Hempfield visited districts like Upper St. Clair and Norwin to learn how to implement block scheduling and teaming.
Norwin implemented block scheduling for English classes several years ago. The 86-minute extended periods infuse reading and writing, according to Bob Suman, principal of Norwin Middle School.
The district has been teaming students since he started in the district 14 years ago. He said that it allows for more individualized instruction, because teachers are consistently working with the same—and smaller—groups of students.
It also benefits teachers because they can collaborate with colleagues who teach the same groups of students during common planning periods.
"In order to grow students, we have to have sound teaching," Suman said. "So I think those two work hand in hand."
Restructuring middle school isn't intended to make it easier for students or teachers, according to Joe DeMar, principal at Fort Couch Middle School in the Upper St. Clair school district, where concepts such as teaming have been the norm for decades.
Rather, it's about supporting both students and teachers and easing the transition from elementary school to middle school, and middle school to high school. "You're looking at a student that is prepubescent or just going into puberty, and they need that connection so that they feel good about themselves, and feel like there's someone there to listen and have someone to talk with," DeMar said.
When a student has good self esteem and earning good marks, they bring that confidence with them when they move up to high school, DeMar said.
Jamie Martines is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at email@example.com, 724-850-2867 or via Twitter @Jamie_Martines.