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North Hills middle school moves along

| Wednesday, June 26, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

North Hills School District is on track with plans to convert its junior high school into a middle school, in keeping with a nationwide shift to middle schools.

The school district has asked the state Department of Education to change the name of North Hills Junior High School to North Hills Middle School. Seventh- and eighth-graders attend school there. Ninth-graders moved to the high school during the 2012-13 school year.

Other changes planned for the coming school year are: A period will be added at the end of the day for activities and specialized instruction in science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics, or for tutoring or club meetings, district spokeswoman Amanda Hartle said.

“A middle school is just a little more conducive to the (needs) of that (age) group. Junior high sort of connotes a rigid mentality,” said Johannah Vanatta, assistant superintendent of secondary education. She said the name change will help the school qualify for grants specified for middle schools.

The move toward middle schools is part of an educational philosophy change that began in the 1960s, when almost all Pennsylvania school districts had junior high schools, experts said. Now, most districts have middle schools.

Junior high schools traditionally were modeled like high schools for younger children. But middle schools provide age-appropriate educational and social settings, said Paul Meck, former director of the state's Schools to Watch Program.

The middle school philosophy is more about culture than grade alignments, because middle school grade configurations vary by district, said Leonard Ference, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association for Middle Level Education.

Most middle schools in Pennsylvania, however, are made up of sixth through eighth grades, he said.

The late Don Eichhorn, former assistant superintendent of the Upper St. Clair School District, established the first middle school in Pennsylvania, Fort Couch, according to the school district.

In 1970-71, there were 2,100 middle schools and 7,800 junior high schools nationwide, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. By 2010-11, there were 13,045 middle schools and 2,855 junior high schools.

The change focuses on establishing small learning environments, with teams of students whose two to four teachers collaborate on lessons that may involve several subjects.

When students learn about the Civil War, for example, elements of the war's history might be used in English, math, social studies and science classes, Ference said.

Lessons are more interactive because adolescents “cannot just be lectured to,” he said.

At North Hills, seventh-graders learn in groups such as Team Earth, Team Fire and Team Wind. The teaming system will return for eighth-graders in the fall after a several-year hiatus due to budget constraints, the district said.

Superintendent Patrick Mannarino, who was a North Hills High School principal three years ago, said he felt ninth-graders should have been part of the high school. A decline in enrollment at the high school allowed for the ninth grade to be moved there last year, he said. In May, 1,376 students attended the high school and 720 were at the middle school.

Neshannock Junior High School in New Castle adopted a middle school teaching philosophy about seven years ago, Superintendent Mary Sandra Todora said.

The decision not to change the name was a financial one, because of costs related to switching the building sign, letterhead and other items, she said.

But in every other way, the school operates as a middle school with teams, cross-curriculum education and themes of the week, Todora said.

“The culture has changed so much. It's based on children and what children need and making connections with children,” she said.

Tory N. Parrish is a staff writer for Trib Total Media.

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