October 12, 2013

Junior high years get new respect as pivotal time

Middle school years have gained recognition as a time when students find their stride or lose their way. One school has taken cues from research and is turning around foundering students.

Middle school, those years of tempestuous transition, are increasingly seen as a time when students find their stride or lose their way. To keep more tweens on target, one school took stock of the challenges and rethought its way of doing business.

Students at Ustach Middle School in north Modesto had high test scores, but the scores weren’t going up. That bothered Principal Nick Stever when he came to the school three years ago.

“We were stagnant. We were at the top of the county, and when your (school score) is high, it’s harder to move up. So we analyzed the data,” Stever said. “We found whole groups slipping through the cracks. We had English learners scoring lower than special ed.”

After working as a high school administrator, Stever knew too many dropouts who arrived on their first day too far behind to catch up. “At high school it’s tough if they have a bad habit. If we can save them before it becomes cemented – middle school is really the last point, we believe, to save children who are going down the wrong path,” he said. “There’s really an urgency to save these kids.”

He took his data to the school site council, forging a parent-powered team that propelled major changes in teaching and discipline. “Parents bought in and really moved this forward. They pushed us to boundaries I didn’t think we could cross,” Stever said.

He and teachers researched what other districts were doing that worked, listened to advocates and experts, and over the course of a year redesigned the school around student needs. They came up with new strategies for English learners and a three-tier program for struggling students that starts by involving their parents.

The school did a full 180-degree turn in its approach to helping longtime English learners, those stuck in a rut of get-by phrases. One of the most radical changes – academy classes – pair the highest-achieving students with English learners.

“We never found any research that said, ‘Put all the English learners in one class and you’ll get good results,’” Stever said. But that is the model most used, focused on going over the basics again and again at a slower pace.

“We found that wasn’t it at all. They needed a different instructional strategy,” he said.

The best and brightest also benefit, Stever added. “The highest level of learning is teaching someone else.”

Math teacher Jen Rutishauser described the leap to learning as scary. But test scores show it worked: Both groups have made the strongest gains at the school, with academy classes as a whole outperforming every other group.

“We searched for other models. There’s no one local who is doing this,” Stever said.

The switch also moved to more intensive, interactive teaching methods that educators say they now use for all their classes, even those with no English learners. “I teach the same way all day long,” said Lisa Anglim, who teaches a mix of academy and special education classes. “They’re just good teaching practices.”

Before the change, teachers lectured most of the day. “We found students were speaking less than 2percent of the time,” he said. “It really takes the mystery away of why they’re not learning (academic English). They’re not using it.”

Now, instead of calling one student, partners explain points to each other every few minutes. The exercise makes students listen harder, analyze better and retain more – all while using key math terms and school phrasing. “They gain so much more as they talk,” Rutishauser said.

As history teacher Ben Flanders put it, “Our big push is to put more miles on the tongue.”

For students heading off the rails, catching falling grades faster and contacting parents immediately form the plan’s foundation. For those still struggling, an elective class gets replaced with remedial help. If that doesn’t work, students get even more help in the dreaded zero period and give up their lunch to studies as well until their grades come up.

For Aivin Alkurgi, struggling out of bed an hour earlier every day has been a literal wake-up call. “Sixth grade was a bad year. I slacked off. I didn’t think it was a big deal, and I was fighting with my parents,” Aivin said.

Slacking off translated to an indifferent attitude, missed assignments and failed tests. His grade-point average was a 1. He was one of those students teachers might have given up on, Stever said.

Now an eighth-grader, Aivin said that 6 a.m. buzzer pushed him to bring up his grades to 3.5, solid B range. “Losing that extra hour really sucked,” he said. He can look forward to sleeping in as long as the grades stay up.

“I proved to myself I could do it. I always doubted myself,” he said.

Kimberly Canchola always tried, but math came hard. “(The teacher) would explain everything too fast,” she said. With some extra help, her D’s and F’s have moved up to B’s and C’s, and Kimberly serves as a student aide in the extra math class. “Helping everybody actually feels good,” she said.

Getting parents into the mix immediately when a student falls behind is critical, said counselor Erin Collins. “In middle school, parents tend to back away a little bit. This really allows them to come in,” she said.

While parent conferences are not new, checking back regularly is. “Just saying ‘work harder’ is not going to do a whole lot,” Collins said.

The school also implemented a 15-minute daily advisory period, where students check their progress on goals. “Teachers have to fly,” Stever said. “But that consistent ‘I’m going to talk to you every day’ – that’s really powerful,” he said.

The school’s state score has moved up 19 points in the past three years. But what Stever points to most proudly are shrinking numbers of lowest achievers. Only 1percent of Ustach seventh- and eighth-graders were in the lowest rung of English scores this year, compared with 4percent in 2010.

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