Middle school can be an awkward time in the best of situations, replete with pimples, raging hormones, braces, mean girl/boy issues and first loves. Those tween to early teen years can be even more challenging when spent in mega schools where discipline is an issue and academic performance lags behind norms.
In Alexandria, fairly or not, there is a perception among many parents that our citys middle schools are, and have been for years, the weak link in the citys school system. Many parents love their neighborhood elementary schools, with kindergarten to 5th grade schools like George Mason, Douglass MacArthur and Lyles Crouch especially standing out. Likewise, T.C. Williams High School, though dauntingly large, provides an array of academic challenges and extracurricular offerings; students who do well at T.C. also tend to be accepted into highly rated colleges.
Parents, however, remain wary of Alexandrias middle schools, as evidenced by the flood of applicants for 6th grade received each year by private schools like St. Stephens and St. Agnes, Alexandria Country Day School, Burgundy Farms and Browne Academy. ACPS Superintendent Morton Sherman recently admitted as much, saying, Some of our lowest achieving issues and results have been at the middle schools. No Alexandria middle school met the federal Adequate Yearly Progress Standards last year.
Sherman and the Alexandria School Board did well in recognizing this problem and taking steps aimed at upgrading Alexandrias middle schools. The hiring this week of Gregory Hutchings to serve as ACPS director of middle schools is the most recent attempt at improving the quality of Alexandrias 6th, 7th and 8th grades.
The effort to shrink and personalize city middle schools began last year, when the Francis C. Hammond and George Washington middle schools were each divided into schools within a school. The goal behind creating these smaller schools was to provide a more close-knit educational environment for teachers and administrators to get to know children better and therefore become more invested in each students success. Closer relationships between students and teachers in theory should help improve both academic performance and behavior within schools.
One year into this transformation the results are not yet in, as academic performance did not see a dramatic leap forward. The transition met with bumps, which are to be expected, as it was being implemented. But, the objective of creating more chances for students to receive one-on-one attention from teachers is necessary. Creating the position of director of middle schools, which some might decry as needlessly adding cost and bureaucracy, is another positive step forward. Improvements in Alexandrias middle schools will ultimately help student performance at T.C. Williams and beyond.
Hutchings will be charged with crafting a more rigorous curriculum for middle school students and ensuring that curriculum is implemented uniformly. That Hutchings knows what its like to sit behind a desk in an Alexandria classroom is an added bonus. School officials did well in bringing a qualified middle school administrator home to help tackle tough problems in our middle schools.
School improvements wont make the internal changes that middle school students undergo any easier. Braces still must be worn. Friendships and cliques will form and split up, as children explore the adolescent social dynamic. No, creating safer, more welcoming and higher achieving schools wont solve any of those problems, but they will let them play out in a better environment.