Successful Middle Schools

The concept of developing a strategic plan is not a new one. School districts commonly gather stakeholders together to formulate a plan of action over time that weaves together the values, priorities, resources, and vision of the community for its schools.

Middle schools have adhered to a strategic plan of their own for some time. The middle school concept has been around for over 50 years. The objective was to organize and schedule a program of instruction consistent with the essential beliefs about, and best practices for, students in this developmental age range.

The Association of Middle Level Educators released a study that compared high-functioning middle schools with a broader sample of middle schools. The study found that schools that achieve high results have established practices consistent with the philosophical underpinnings of the middle school movement. Millburn Middle School has remained true to our middle level mission over the last two decades in a variety of ways.

Teaming is a central construct of our middle school organization. Teams provide for a smaller group of students and teachers to work together, creating a smaller school within a school. During the instructional process teachers come to know individual students as learners and can share information and strategies with other teachers, guidance counselors, and parents. Teaming makes possible the collaboration called for in the creation of individual learning plans, planning and time management, communications, and interdisciplinary team projects. A common meeting time is scheduled every day for a meeting of team teachers.

Another important aspect of middle level learning has to do with understanding how students ages 11-14 learn. Lecture is a less prominent format and more cooperative learning allows students to channel their social energy and work together to find, support, and reinforce key ideas. Our teachers also use a variety of strategies that meet diverse learning styles by creating learning stations and engaging students in role-play, problem-solving, debate, technology applications, and connecting with historical and contemporary “real world” challenges and events.

In middle schools that achieve, a greater emphasis is placed on critical thinking and problem-solving. The higher levels of thinking – analysis, comparison, synthesis, and evaluation – are encouraged through the activities teachers design for students to interact with the content of a course. The curriculum we deliver is updated and enriched by our own professional staff. The Connected Math curriculum is a good example of a way of teaching that offers discovery and deeper understandings about math using an integrated, thematic problem-solving format.

The study talks about some conventions like flexible block scheduling and advisory periods that we do not have. But there are several important middle level components that we have in place that it does not mention, such as strong parent involvement, character education initiatives, developmental guidance programs, support for the arts, and programs for learners who have challenges.

The challenge of every middle level principal is to find teachers who are not only highly qualified (also cited as an important element in the study), but who also understand the unique characteristics and evolution of the preadolescent and enjoy working with this age group. It is the teaching staff  that creates the fundamental culture of learning in a school, and to them we owe the credit for helping students grow in so many ways from the time they arrive as sixth graders until we send them off to high school.

It is good and necessary to reflect on the ongoing work that is essential to create a successful middle school. Studies like this one affirm much of what we do, as do our test scores. Even as we vow to remain true to our middle school mission, Millburn must also look to the future to envision how and what to change in order to prepare our learners for their futures as our district updates its own strategic plan.

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