Find ways to boost middle school students

A lot of focus has been put on elementary education to make sure kids have a solid foundation for learning. Then we turn our attention to high school, preparing students with the skills they need for college or the workforce.

There is an important time in a child’s education – middle school – where there has been little call for reform. But it remains a key time of transition and often predicts the future success of a student.

When students come into middle school, they are not far removed from the cozy confines of elementary schools with sand tables, glue and construction paper. By the time they complete eighth grade, educators want middle and junior high students to have a vision of their lives beyond high school. But for that to happen, students need to experience achievement academically and socially.

In a Johns Hopkins University study, researcher Robert Belfanz uncovered indicators that can predict how likely a student is to drop of out high school: attendance, behavior and course performance, or the “ABCs.”

The study shows if a sixth-grade child in a low-income area attends less than 80 percent of the time and receives an unsatisfactory grade in a core course or fails math or English, there is a 75 percent chance that, without intervention, they will later drop out of high school.

Belfanz said the habits that predict whether or not a student graduates are formed during middle school, making it a critical make-or-break period.

In the Anoka-Hennepin School District, one of the state’s largest districts, these ABCs are monitored and students showing high-risk behavior are flagged at the middle and end of each trimester. They are referred to specialists within the district for intervention, allowing educators to act before a student’s behavior or performance gets too far off track.

Many factors that contribute to attendance, behavior and classroom performance come from forces outside of school. Students experiencing homelessness, hunger, violence or turmoil at home are often the ones being flagged.

The school system is often now the first line of defense and the first call for help. Some schools have found it effective to have a team of teachers working with kids, in particular those in need of intervention. This way teachers meet the physical, intellectual and emotional needs of students.

It takes an entire school community to contribute to the social and academic success of a student. Eyes are on students outside of the classroom. Building services employees know when they see a student’s locker jammed with clothes and personal items, it might be that student is homeless and using the locker as a closet. In the lunchroom, staff note of who isn’t eating several days in a row. Then an action plan for support can be started.

Middle schools should be about choice and exploration. By offering coursework in music, art, technical education and world languages, schools help students find their voice and a place where they can really engage.

Many educators believe positive relationships are at the root of student engagement at school, and student engagement exponentially increases the odds of academic success. That requires a trusting relationship with teachers and other adults.

Much can be learned by looking at what went right for a student in trouble on the days he showed up for class, made good decisions or was engaged in an assignment.

While a social curriculum might not be defined on a page, it should certainly exist in the teaching of all course materials. The development of emotional intelligence – decision-making, respect, working with others, critical thinking – is another crucial piece of success academically and in life.

All the work that goes into the social and emotional pieces of learning is the foundation that raises test scores. When kids are excited about learning and experiencing success, it will show on their report card.

This is why many schools are embracing resiliency training – teaching kids the techniques to adapt well and cope in the face of stress, adversity or trauma.

Parents can help this effort by providing a safe and supportive environment for their kids or seeking out resources. The community can step in by supporting programs that fill the gaps for food, shelter, mentorship or tutoring.

It is a balancing act for parents and teachers in this time when young people are starting to become more independent and adults’ roles transition from being a helper to a coach. Some middle schools have implemented a parent involvement program, where selected parents meet regularly to talk about the goals of a school and how they can support them.

When students leave middle school, they should be in a position to have long-term aspirations to be who they want to be, whether that is a heavy equipment operator, an artist or a scientist. – An opinion from the ECM Editorial Board

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