Middle School: Launching Pad to Success or Pipeline to Failure?

Middle School: Launching Pad to Success or Pipeline to Failure?


Hammond Middle School students and mentors in the RARE afterschool enrichment program.

Hammond Middle School students and mentors in the RARE afterschool enrichment program.

Per recent studies, our middle schools nationwide are often overlooked, frequently allocated secondhand resources and habitually saddled by low expectations, yet it is the critical period in a child's education and development.

Dr. Robert Balfanz, director of the Johns Hopkins University Center for the Social Organization of Schools, states: "The middle grades will play a pivotal role in enabling the nation to reach President Obama’s goal of graduating all students from high school prepared for college or advanced career training. In high-poverty neighborhoods, in particular, our research and school improvement work indicate that students’ middle grades experiences have tremendous impact on the extent to which they will close achievement gaps, graduate from high school, and be prepared for college. As a result, ... there is a need to reconceptualize the role the middle grades play in the public education system.”

Educators and policy makers have an opportunity to improve this inequitable situation. We must do so, suggests the directors of the Reach and Rise for Excellence (RARE) afterschool enrichment and mentoring program sponsored by the Concerned Citizens Network of Alexandria (CCNA) at Francis C. Hammond Middle School.

CCNA discovered that there was a lack of full support and resources in the local middle school, based on its research in 2009. At RARE we believe that one of the most critical challenges of our time is to provide the necessary tools for these students during their transitional years between sixth through eighth grades. This is the decisive, make-or-break crossroad in their academic experience that becomes either the launching pad to their success or the pathway to their failure.

According to Pierrette Hall, principal at Hammond, more than 1,000 students receive free and reduced lunches, and one-third or more are underachieving. Therefore, RARE recruits students who are at risk of dropping out of high school and who will benefit the most from tutoring in math and reading. The goal of RARE is to provide help with homework assignments in order to increase their letter grades in the classroom; significantly improve their SOL scores in both math and reading; increase life skills and cultural awareness; and to appreciate their differences and build relationships of respect. RARE staff and mentors emphasize the need to value the diverse ways people look, speak, think, and act within the immediate community and around the world.

Ms Hall said, “The dedicated work of this organization has increased student engagement for students enrolled in the afternoon program and has had a positive effect on our entire school community. The CCNA/RARE Program has had a long-standing partnership and a proven history of success — a history that features improved student test scores, improved school attendance and more focused students. One of the best things about the program is the way it brings together various community members and gets them actively involved in helping kids learn and grow.”

RARE has proven to be a successful model as our 2014-2015 data shows: the total number of students served was 31 and 71 percent of them successfully met program goals, including a 62 percent improvement in math. In fact, 47 percent passed the math SOL and 40 percent passed the reading SOL in the school that was once under state control.

As stated by Gwen Day-Fuller, CCNA board chair, “We are making great progress but we have some tough challenges. Our initial vision for RARE was to build on our success at Hammond and to expand to the other middle schools. The lack of resources and funding has prevented us from realizing that goal. We also need additional resources to enhance the parent education component and more collaboration among other nonprofits and community stakeholders. In summary, we believe that, as concerned citizens, we all should take up the charge to make a difference in our middle schools, where the need is, indeed, most critical in Alexandria and throughout the nation.”

Visit ccna.org for more information.