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Somewhere in the Middle

Alexandria’s two middle schools prepare for the upcoming school year.

Between elementary school and high school, students begin to develop into young adults. They become more self-reliant, start to ask more questions and begin on a lifelong quest toward independence. Parents still play a central role, but middle school is often a time when identities emerge from the innocence of childhood into the confusion of adolescence.

“It’s a time when competition often turns into what you’re wearing and who you’re dating,” said School Board member Claire Eberwein during a discussion of middle school at last week’s annual retreat. “This is where we lose a lot of students.”

For students in grades 6, 7 and 8, middle school can seem like a strange purgatory. They are too old to play with toys but too young to drive cars. Somewhere between the social obligations and the first tugs of puberty is an academic world where teachers battle for attention amid a growing chorus of concerns about race, class and status.

“Low expectation is the biggest producer of the achievement gap,” said School Board member Charles Wilson. “We need to use cultural awareness to fight the achievement gap.”

Last year’s test scores from the city’s two middle schools show several racial disparities in achievement. At Hammond Middle School, white students scored 87 percent while Hispanic students scored 72 percent and black students scored 68 percent. At George Washington Middle School, the disparities are more pronounced. White students scored 99 percent on the English test while Hispanic students scored 57 percent and black students scored 57 percent — a drastic achievement gap that has George Washington’s black and Hispanic students falling well behind statewide averages.

“Sometimes we make false assumptions when we put kids into groups,” said Assistant Superintendent Cathy David. “The achievement gap doesn’t form in later life. It’s almost always present when children show up for Kindergarten.”

PARENTS INVOLVED in parent-teacher associations at both schools say they are concerned about what they call “the middle child” — those who are not in advanced classes at one end of the spectrum or remedial instruction at the other. John Kennedy, co-president of the George Washington PTA, said that reaching these kids should be a goal for school administrators.

“Kids in advanced-placement classes get what they need, and they have a lot of support. And the kids at the bottom are getting a lot of attention from the school system,” Kennedy said. “I worry about the kids in the middle.”

Kennedy said that these students should be pushed as hard as other students, and that the resources of the school system should be marshaled to make sure that all students are achieving as much as those at the top and those at the bottom. Mia Jones, president of the Hammond Middle School PTA, agreed with Kennedy’s assessment. But she said that reaching these students would be a challenge in a diverse student population.

“Some of these kids don’t know what happened in 1776 while others could probably write a book about it,” Jones said. “Teachers have to pull all that together.”

One of the ways school administrators hope to address the issue of closing the achievement gap is a division-wide emphasis on literacy. School administrators say that all students would benefit from increasing literacy skills — those at the top, those at the bottom and those in the middle. A memorandum presented to School Board members at the last week’s retreat spells out the central administration’s desire to put this at the top of the agenda for the coming year.

“We believe that literacy is the gateway to an excellent education for all students,” it stated. “Therefore, ACPS will focus time, energy and resources on a renewed, re-energized and retooled emphasis on literacy development for all of our students. All teachers, regardless of their grade level or content area, will be trained and expected to incorporate key literacy strategies into their instructional programs.”

AT HAMMOND, the division’s emphasis on literacy will be felt on a daily basis. Principal Randolph Mitchell said that all students will be required to read for 30 minutes every day. He said that promoting literacy skills is crucial to the long-term success of his students.

“If kids can’t read, there aren’t too many things they can do,” Mitchell said. “But if they can read, there’s nothing they can’t do.”

Mitchell said that raising the expectations for all students will be the key.

“We want to reach the kids in the middle by raising expectations for all students,” Mitchell said. “Failure is not an option, but mediocrity won’t do either.”

Francis Hammond Middle School was built in 1956. In the last 50 years, the building has housed a variety of grade levels. From 1956 to 1971, it was a high school. From 1971 to 1979, Hammond was one of the city's first integrated schools, offering grades 9 and 10. In 1979, the school offered grades 7 to 9 as a junior high school. Finally, in 1993, the school was reorganized as a middle school serving grades 6 to 8. In June, Minnie Howard Principal Randolph Mitchell was moved to Hammond to replace outgoing Principal Kris Clark, who took a position in the division’s central administration on Beauregard Street.

“I’m very excited about the upcoming year,” said Mitchell, a former assistant principal at Hammond. “A lot of the same people are still here, but I’ve seen a lot of new faces too.”

Mitchell said that one of his goals for the school is to increase the technology that is available to teachers and students. He said that since being named principal of Hammond, he has discovered that the school had fallen behind in upgrading its computers. He hopes that Superintendent Rebecca Perry and the Alexandria School Board will be able to find money in future budgets to give his school the latest educational technology.

“Teachers use these computers every day,” Mitchell said. “And I want to see that they have everything they need.”

AT GEORGE WASHINGTON, Keisha Boggan is now the principal of the school she once attended. The Alexandria native attended George Washington Junior High School before it made the transition from a departmentally organized junior high to a team-oriented middle school. The team structure pairs groups of teachers with groups of students, giving the middle school experience a much more personalized approach than the old junior high model that was organized more like high school.

“Each team has its own name and its own colors,” Boggan said. “And they can be very competitive.”

Boggan said that this year, the school will be engaged in an effort to rethink the team concept — trying to hone the organization to maximize its efficiency. She said all her teachers will be reading “Wow, What a Team: Essential Components for Successful Teaming” by Randy Thompson and Dorothy Vander Jaqt. At staff development meetings over the next few months, teachers and administrators will be discussing the chapters of the book in an effort to find new educational strategies.

“Teaming gives us an opportunity to piggyback off something that was done in other classes,” Boggan said. “We want to make these kinds of connections for students.”

Originally built in 1935 as a high school, the art deco building on Mount Vernon Avenue has been a local landmark for generations of Alexandrians. Its first principal was Henry Moncure, who oversaw a student population of 1,200 and a faculty of 35. Thirty years later, T.C. Williams High School opened and George Washington was racially integrated. George Washington became a junior high in 1979, then was transformed to a middle school in 1993.

“Life in middle school is different from life in elementary school,” Boggan said. “We’re trying to give them a boost.”

Boggan said that all students will participate in a five-week program at the beginning of the year to increase study skills. They will learn basic studying concepts as well as content-specific skills for succeeding in middle school. She said that the program will be individually designed for the particular needs of each student.

“They may end up spending more time with a math teacher, for example, if that’s what they need,” Boggan said. “We want to constantly enhance their skills to make sure the students are where they need to be and going where they need to go.”