Cooper Middle School principal Arlene Randall knows the middle school years can be a trying time for her students between the pressures of school and the ragings of hormones.
"They don't know if they are coming or going. They still want to listen to adults and get approval from adults but they bristle at what the adults say," she said.
She is also aware there are students that are maturing faster than others, both emotionally and educationally, and need to be challenged more by the current curriculum.
Next school year, Cooper will be one of six middle schools that will be piloting an honors program. The schools will be offering social studies and science honors courses to seventh graders come September and over the next years make their way to a full honor program in the four core classes, math, science, English and social studies.
Higher-level math is already offered in the middle schools and in two years a seventh-grade English honors class will be phased in. Honors courses for the eighth grade will follow.
Herndon Middle, Stone Middle in Centreville, Jackson Middle in Falls Church, Cooper in McLean, Franklin in Chantilly and the yet unnamed southwest county middle schools are piloting the program designed to provide a challenging curriculum to the students who learn at a faster pace than the others, but were not necessarily identified for the all-around gifted and talent (GT) program.
"IT'S DESIGNED to be a extension to the program of study," said Layne Kalbfleisch, middle school GT specialist for the school system. "In the GT school-based program, kids are coming from elementary school and have been screened. We know there are other kids achieving at a higher level."
The hope is the honors program will cater to the students’ individual strengths by allowing them to take advance courses in their strongest subjects.
"So if you have a gifted kid in elementary school and that kid has been getting A-plus in science and is average in social studies, the teachers can encourage that kid to go into science honors," Kalbfleisch said.
Kalbfleisch said there was no particular reason the six middle schools were selected to pilot the program. In all, the county has 22 middle schools, including the southwest county school, which is slated to open in September. The pilot schools will collect data as the program progresses and the staff at those schools will make suggestions about what is working and what is not as the courses are phased in. Based on the success of the pilot, the program could one day be offered at all the middle schools.
Franklin principal Michelle Peyser isn't too interested in why her school was selected, she is more excited about being able to try something new.
"Anytime I have the opportunity to try different content for the kids, I like to try to bring it to Franklin," Peyser said. "This will be an opportunity for the students to be exposed to a diverse curriculum."
WHAT THAT CURRICULUM will be is not yet known; it is still being written. However, Kalbfleisch said it will be the same program of study as the general education seventh-grade curriculum, only presented in a different way. The students will go more in depth into the subject matter. And at times the material will be presented in an interdisciplinary way, crossing subject lines.
"It will delve deeper into critical thinking and there will be more cognitive development, but it will not be a different curriculum," Peyser said.
The honors program, said Herndon principal Frank Jenkins, will catch those children that slip through the GT program cracks. It will also provide teachers with additional training to enable them to reach all the students no matter what type of learners they are.
"We can have children right on the cutting edge of meeting the requirements for the GT Center and can have some kids testing off the charts and our teachers have to teach them all," Jenkins said.
He has no doubt the students at Herndon will be interested in the program. He said 40 percent of his students are enrolled in algebra and 45 percent are taking a foreign language, both are high-school credit courses.
"I'm excited because there is always a group of students that are not challenged in seventh grade in schools that aren't GT Centers," Jerkins said. "By piloting the program, we are making sure the right kids are being reached."
Randall said she knows not all her students will be suited for the honors program and that parents need to be careful about putting too much pressure on their children. She said the student's maturity level will be the key as to who succeeds in the program.
"I'm looking at kids that are really up for the challenge. Our general education is really good, but this is for the kids who want to reach for the stars' stars," Randall said. "But as a mother, I wouldn't recommend a student take all four honors courses [when it's fully implemented]. I'd recommend one, two or maybe even three courses. These are still kids and they need to stay kids."