Is there any more middle ground?

Educators have long tried to ease the awkwardness of middle school by keeping seventhand eighth-graders in elementary school a couple extra years. Campuses serving children from kindergarten through eighth grade have grown popular, as parents pray their preteens will be more "pre" and less "teen."

Now the opposite is starting to happen, too.

Educators are grouping middle-schoolers with high-school students in the hopes that the new format will put seventhand eighth-graders on a serious academic path as they advance toward high-school graduation — and then on to college.

The trend has emerged in recent years in New York City; this fall it arrives in the Central Valley.

At least six schools across the Sacramento region will debut with a configuration that combines middle school and high school. Some of them are brand-new programs, others are existing schools that are restructuring to include a wider grade span.

"When students arrive at high school not working at grade level, it's very difficult to get them to the place they need to be to get them ready for college when they leave," said Mary Shelton, associate superintendent at the Sacramento City Unified School District, where three 7-12 schools will open this fall.

Sacramento City Unified, like many urban districts across the country, has focused on curbing dropout rates and improving high schools in the past few years. Now administrators are realizing that to make a difference in high school, they have to consider middle-school-age students.

Tough transition

The switch from elementary to middle school, and then from middle to high school, has traditionally been tough on many kids. As they navigate new social territory, many slip behind academically.

Eliminating one of those transitions, educators figure, will decrease the chance that students disengage from school.

"We lose a lot of them between sixth grade and ninth grade — that's a troubled age range," said Sue Brothers, assistant superintendent of the Washington Unified School District in West Sacramento.

The transitions into and out of middle school were so difficult for West Sacramento kids that the district decided to do away with middle school altogether. Over the next two years, all its elementary schools will become K-8 and the new Early College Charter High School will open this fall serving grades 6-12.

Until now, few districts have chosen to combine middle and high school. In 2005-06 — the most recent data available — just 5 percent of California's high schools served grades 6-12 or 7-12.

One reason so few schools serve middleand high-schoolers together became evident at a recent gathering of students entering Sacramento's new School of Engineering and Sciences. At one end of the table, a group of ninth-grade girls compared manicures and talked about a rock song called "Lying Is the Most Fun a Girl Can Have Without Taking Her Clothes Off."

"Whoa," said 12-year-old Kevin Davis, his eyes widening.

An incoming seventh-grader, Kevin turned away from the girls to join the conversation on the other end of the table — where 11and 12-year-old boys talked about building a car for a science project.

Thinking it through

Educators on campuses that combine middle and high school have given a lot of thought to how to manage this gap in children's development. They frequently divide the age groups in different wings or make sure middle-schoolers and high-school students are separated for social events like dances.

"It's a delicate topic," said Glenda Golobay, principal of the School of Engineering and Sciences. "The whole purpose for doing 7-12 is so that they're one group. And at the same time, you don't want to have an age span for adolescents that is inappropriate."

Those planning the new schools say their campuses will succeed because of the many benefits of combining age groups. Middle-schoolers who are advanced in math, for example, can take geometry with high-school students. High-schoolers who need remediation can be grouped with eighth-graders. And schools can offer all students more electives by combining the student bodies.

It's hard to assess how effective combined middle and high schools are at getting students to learn because there is so little research about them.

Anecdotally, however, educators who have experimented with the format say it works. Richard Kahan is the CEO of Urban Assembly, a nonprofit group that manages 19 public schools in New York City. He started off working with high schools but soon realized that four years wasn't enough time to get struggling students into college.

So he created a 6-12 school in 2004. It's been so successful that he's since added middle grades to several of his high schools.

"We're running a footrace here, and we're not going to win as often as we'd like to if we don't have the kids for more time," Kahan said.