The middle school years are tough: It can be difficult socially, and one researcher says it's the crucial time to identify potential high school dropouts and try to reverse their course. We spend a lot of time thinking about grade school and high school education, but not as much on sixth through eighth grades.
"This is a make or break time in an adolescent's life," said Amber Damm, a language arts teacher for 7th and 8th graders at Clara Barton Open School in Minneapolis, on The Daily Circuit Monday. "I think of it as the bridge between elementary and high school. It's imperative that we adults offer a safe way for kids to get across that bridge."
Damm was the 2009 Minnesota Teacher of the Year. She said the most important element to teaching middle school students is weaving the social needs of the students into the curriculum.
"There something unique about 12, 13, 14 years old that is really important for middle-level educators to understand and to offer what I hope is additional support," she said. "It's not just what we teach, it's how we teach and how we help young people transition from what is a very safe elementary experience to what is a more complex, while still safe, high school experience."
Deborah Kasak, executive director of the National Forum to Accelerate Middle-Grades Reform, also joined the discussion. She said American schools have shifted away from the 7th through 9th grade middle schools to a 6th through 8th grade model in the last 30 years. But there are still 60 different types of middle school configurations in the country that 7th grade students go through.
Kasak also reiterated the importance of the social needs of middle grade students to make the programs successful.
"They are shifting from young child to beginning of pre-adulthood," she said. "They are wanting to be independent, yet still need a lot of structure. They are trying to figure out how to navigate the whole social scene."
These years are also critical predictors of a student's long-term success, Kasak said. In a Johns Hopkins study, a 6th grade student at a high poverty school has a 75 percent chance of dropping out of high school if he or she attends school less than 80 percent of the time, receives an unsatisfactory behavior grade in a core course or fails math or English.
Damm said her school's team system is a good model to keep students from falling off track. A set of four to six teachers all see the same students every day and can help one another when a student starts to fall behind.
"We need to create a place where kids really want to be and when they're not here, they feel like they're missing something," she said. "Not only the social piece, but also the academic piece."
On Facebook, Debbie Deblieck said giving students choices in their education is key to keeping them engaged.
"In middle school, have more choices for the students in the courses they have to take; it helps to have classes they enjoy and perhaps can make a future with what they learn," she wrote. "What worked for my kids in middle school was a combination of the classes. All 6th through 8th grades had a teacher or two that taught them all three years. The teacher/student relationship grew; more individual attention for them."
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Krystyna Pease contributed to this report.