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Junior high

With so many middle schools performing poorly, the movement for K-8 schools is gaining momentum in Boston and nationwide. But some education reformers think combining the middle grades with high school, rather than elementary school, is a better formula.

"MIDDLE SCHOOLS ARE the great disaster of the education system," says Robert Gaudet, senior policy analyst at the Donahue Institute at the University of Massachusetts. As education leaders in Boston and other urban districts struggle to raise achievement levels and keep students and families connected to schools, many are coming to the same conclusion as Gaudet, who has studied school performance across the state.

In search of a solution, Boston has followed other big city districts exploring a model that keeps students in the same school from kindergarten through eighth grade. This K-8 movement has been gaining steam in larger districts across the country, including Philadelphia, Cleveland, and Pittsburgh, where Superintendent Mark Roosevelt, the former Massachusetts lawmaker who coauthored the state's 1993 Education Reform Act, has doubled the number of K-8 schools. Last spring, he convened a "K-8 summit" with educators from across the country, including Boston.

A national consensus may be emerging that middle schools are the weak link in the educational chain, but could it be that the K-8 solution has it all backward? That's the view of leaders of some of the most impressive, high-achieving urban schools in Massachusetts and elsewhere, who have taken the opposite approach to the middle-grades challenge. Rather than extending elementary schools upward, as the K-8 model does, they are joining middle school and high school grades in a way that emulates some elite private and public schools.

These educators are convinced that a rigorous six- or seven-year curriculum, within a single school extending through 12th grade, offers the best hope for student success in K-12 education, and beyond, especially among students from lower-income families, where a college future is not nearly the presumed path that it is in middle-class homes.

While this approach to reform has had far less traction than the K-8 movement, its supporters in Boston were preparing for the arrival of an important ally in a very high position. Manuel Rivera, who was slated to take office in July as Boston's next superintendent of schools, has led what is probably the most ambitious effort in the United States to adopt the upper-grades model. In Rochester, N.Y., where he has been superintendent for the last four years, Rivera launched a wholesale reconfiguration of the city's schools into a system in which most students will attend grade 7-12 schools.

Rivera stunned Boston officials last week when he backed out of the job. With or without him, however, this alternate approach to grade reconfiguration may be getting more attention in Boston, where two of the city's better-achieving high schools have expressed interest in expanding to include middle school grades and one middle school is hoping to extend its reach upward to include high school grades.

Boston has long had a few successful schools with this grade structure. The city's three competitive-admission exam schools, including the renowned Boston Latin School, all use a 7-12 sequence to offer a college preparatory curriculum for the city's top-scoring students.

"If we think it's good for the elite, and we want to have high expectations for all, [then] have the same structure," says William Henderson, principal of Dorchester's Patrick O'Hearn elementary school.

Middle schools were conceived in the 1970s and '80s as a nurturing bridge from early elementary grades to high school, but critics say they now more often resemble a swamp, where urban youth sink into education failure. The K-8 movement is an effort to deliver a supportive structure that fosters longer-term relationships between school staff and students as they enter the challenging years of adolescence.

By contrast, the upper-grades model that joins middle and high school years is more explicitly aspirational, focused on academic achievement and instilling in urban students by sixth or seventh grade the expectation of continuing on to a four-year college or another form of higher education or training. Merging poorly performing middle schools and high schools may only compound problems. But when done right, advocates of the upper-grades model say it offers the best hope for dramatically ratcheting up expectations -- and achievement -- in urban districts.

Boston appears to be ripe for a discussion of different grade structures and the future of middle schools. Last fall, the School Department named a 17-member Middle Grades Task Force, which is due to report its recommendations in the spring.

"We're looking, quite honestly, at whether the system wants to sustain a portfolio that includes middle schools," says Michael Contompasis, the veteran Boston school administrator who is serving as interim superintendent.

The rising popularity of K-8 schools in Boston, which reduces the number of students attending stand-alone middle schools, was a big factor behind the formation of the task force. In early November, the Boston School Committee approved conversion of the Joyce Kilmer School in West Roxbury from a K-5 school (the standard configuration of Boston's elementary schools) to K-8. When it reopens next fall, the Kilmer School will be the city's 20th K-8 school, 17 of which have been formed since 1998.

The K-8 movement in Boston has been driven in part by parents, who like the idea of their children remaining at an early-grades school they have come to know -- and who are wary of sending them to one of the city's middle schools, many of which are notoriously troubled. According to a preliminary report from the Middle Grades Task Force, there was an average of 8.33 students seeking every open seat in a K-8 school last year but only 0.64 students seeking an open seat in a middle school.

Despite the momentum behind the K-8 structure, some Boston school leaders are starting to push the upper-grades configuration instead. One school hoping to expand in such a manner is TechBoston Academy, one of eight pilot high schools in Boston.

TechBoston, which integrates technology and computer course work into a college preparatory curriculum, has been one of the success stories in the city's move to break down its large district high schools into smaller learning communities. With a longer school day and highly individualized instruction for its 360 students, who occupy one floor of the three-story former Dorchester High School building, TechBoston's 10th-graders outpace the district average on the MCAS test, and last year, 94 percent of the school's first graduating class went on to college. But headmaster Mary Skipper is convinced the school could do even better if students entered TechBoston earlier.

"We very much want to become a 6-12 school," says Skipper, who has raised the idea with School Department officials. She says TechBoston's teachers are the strongest advocates for expanding the school's grade span, because they find themselves struggling to get ninth-graders entering from middle school up to par. "They see what we could do if we had the kids earlier," she says.

That is much the same thinking that guided Rivera in reconfiguring Rochester's schools using the 7-12 grade structure. Rochester's high schools have long suffered from low achievement and abysmal graduation rates, which hover around 50 percent. But Rivera saw the problems beginning before high school.

"There was a lot of frustration with the middle schools," he said in an interview in November. Achievement scores were particularly low and annual middle school teacher turnover was 20 to 30 percent, a revolving door that undermined the idea of middle schools providing a stable, guiding hand to young adolescents in the throes of suddenly active hormones.

"The transition from grade 8 to 9, with a completely different faculty, at a completely different facility with folks who have no knowledge of who you are, at a very sensitive age for young people, really was a problem point," Rivera said. "We were losing too many young people who were finding themselves in the rigor of a ninth-to-12th grade program that they were not prepared for."

The 7-12 grade structure, he said, provides a "seamless accountability system," with students entering a school that is "responsible for their outcomes six years later."

What the K-8 and 7-12 (or 6-12) models have in common is elimination of the hop, skip, and jump from elementary school to middle school to high school. Each additional leap is fraught with educational peril, experts say. A 2004 report from the Rand Corp. concluded that the idea of separate schools for the three-year span from sixth to eighth grade has "weak empirical support," and it recommended that districts consider models that reduce the number of transitions children make between schools.

John Alspaugh, an emeritus professor of education at the University of Missouri, has studied the effect of school transitions. "No matter what grade level it occurs at, there is always a sharp drop in achievement in the first year of a new school," he says.

Alspaugh analyzed Missouri school districts that have just a single school transition during the K-12 span, but which make that break at different points. Those districts in which the transition occurs at seventh grade had lower dropout rates than those where the switch was made at ninth or 10th grade, he found. Alspaugh theorizes that this may be because the transition comes at an early point, when "you're too young to drop out, so you settle in and you establish yourself in this new social structure."

Paul Reville, president of the Cambridge-based Rennie Center for Education Research and Policy, warns against any rush to judgment on the question. "There isn't a clear victor," he says of the limited research on K-8 schools and 7-12 grade structures. The only emerging consensus, he says, is that "middle school is a weak point."

Leaders of the small but growing set of small urban high schools using the upper-grades model, however, say the need in today's economy for students to go on to postsecondary education should shift the focus toward school structures with a track record of success by that measure.

The University Park Campus School in Worcester, a 7-12 grade public school in one of the city's toughest neighborhoods, has had extraordinary results educating students from working-class families and catapulting them on to college. The open-admission school offers an honors-level curriculum across the board, and in its eight-year history, every graduate, 95 percent of whom are first generation collegegoers, has moved on to seek a higher education degree.

"We think what happens in K-8 schools is, rather than taking the rigor and expectations of high schools and bringing them down, you end up stretching elementary level expectations up," says Dan Restuccia, coordinator of a training institute the school operates to share its practices with other educators.

Certainly you could have a 7-12 school that was "as dysfunctional as any other urban school," says Restuccia. "But I think this structure, when done right, has a unique ability to prepare kids for college in a way that our urban school systems right now aren't."

It's a view that is quietly gaining support. With funding from the Gates and Dell foundations, the College Board -- best known for administering the SAT test -- is establishing up to 18 schools in public school districts in New York State focused on providing low-income and minority students with a rigorous 6-12 or 7-12 grade curriculum geared toward successful completion of college.

Meanwhile, high-achieving charter schools in several cities, including Boston, are adopting the structure as well. At Boston Collegiate Charter School, a 5-12 grade school with 400 students, every 10th-grader has passed the state MCAS exam in math and English over the past four years, and for three straight years, among a student body where only about one in four has a parent who attended college, every graduate has been accepted to a four-year college.

The expanded upper-grades structure, and the curriculum coordination it allows, have played a big role in that, says the school's cofounder, Brett Peiser. But he cautions against magic-bullet theories in education reform, citing a range of things the school does differently, such as provide longer school days and a longer school year.

Indeed, Roxbury Preparatory Charter School, a stand-alone grade 6-8 middle school that serves a predominantly low-income, African-American student population and also uses an extended-learning time approach, outperformed every school district in the state on the 2006 eighth-grade MCAS test.

Elizabeth Reilinger, chairwoman of the Boston School Committee, thinks there is room for a mix of schools with different grade structures. "I'm very resistant to go to one model completely, because it's like anything else in the world," says Reilinger. "We see one model and say the data tells us to go in this direction, unequivocally. Then 10 years later, we see more data and say, 'Go the other way.'" The driving principle, she says, should be "building on our strengths" -- with better performing elementary schools expanding to become K-8 schools, and high schools that are gaining traction adding in middle school grades.

For his part, Contompasis, the interim Boston superintendent, says the practical issues of finding appropriate school facilities for expanded grade-span schools are daunting enough in a district with 58,000 students. The Timilty School, a Roxbury middle school, has expressed interest in adding a 9-12 grade component. "Where the hell do we put them?" says Contompasis.

None of which, however, argues against rethinking school grade structures as part of the answer. "The good news is people are thinking," says Contompasis, "and they're thinking about different configurations and approaches."

Michael Jonas is acting editor of CommonWealth, a quarterly magazine published by MassINC, a nonpartisan think tank in Boston. This article is adapted from the magazine's winter issue, available at