The new math
Rejiggering grade configurations to eliminate middle schools is catching on
EDITOR’S NOTE: After CommonWealth went to press, it was reported that Manuel Rivera would not be taking the job of superintendent of Boston’s public schools.
in July, launched a wholesale
reconfiguration of the Rochester
AS THE BOSTON PUBLIC SCHOOLS struggle to raise achievement and keep students and families connected to schools, the system has followed the national march of big city districts toward a model that keeps students in the same school from kindergarten through eighth grade. The K-8 movement is gaining steam in larger districts across the country, including Philadelphia, Cleveland, and Pittsburgh, where Superintendent Mark Roosevelt, the former Massachusetts lawmaker who co-authored the state’s Education Reform Law, has not only doubled the number of K-8 schools, he convened a “K-8 summit” last spring with educators from across the country, including Boston.
The move to K-8 is also, not coincidentally, a move away from middle schools, which were conceived as a nurturing bridge from early elementary grades to high school but now more often resemble a giant moat, where urban youth sink into education failure.
But if middle schools are the weak link in the educational chain, 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, which have taken the opposite approach to the middle grades. 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 school innovators are convinced that a rigorous six- or seven-year curriculum, within a single school extending through 12th grade, offers the best hope for achieving success with students of all races—especially those from lower-income families, where a college future is not nearly the presumed path that it is in middle-class homes.
While this type of reform has not had nearly the visibility of the K-8 movement, its supporters here will soon have an important ally in a very high place.
Manuel Rivera, who takes 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, NY, 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.
In published interviews and in get-to-know-you visits to the Hub, Rivera has said little about his plans for Boston’s schools. He has certainly given no indication that he plans to push for a similar, wholesale reshuffling of Boston’s schools. But extended grade-span secondary schools are quietly gaining support in Boston, with at least two of the city’s better-achieving high schools interested in expanding to include middle school grades, and one middle school hoping to extend its reach upward to include high school grades.
And well they might, considering that Boston has long had a few schools with this grade structure.
The 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 highest-achieving students. With more than 375 years under its belt, might Boston Latin be on to something?
“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.
MANNY BEING MANNY
The 54-year-old Rivera is now wrapping up his second tour of duty as Rochester’s superintendent of schools. He served a three-year stint in the early 1990s before spending eight years as a vice president with Edison Schools, a national for-profit school management company based in New York City. Edison has earned a mixed record in its attempts—sometimes controversial—to turn around troubled schools, but the company has not shied away from bold steps, showing a willingness to shake things up that Rivera shares.
When Rivera returned to Rochester in 2002, it was initially as interim superintendent, serving while the district conducted a national search for a permanent schools chief. He says the school board cautioned him against “advancing any major program changes” while the search was in progress. Rivera says he pushed back, making it clear he didn’t intend to simply warm the seat, especially if he felt there was a compelling case for change. He quickly discovered such a case in low achievement scores and an abysmal high school graduation rate, hovering around 50 percent. But Rivera saw the problems beginning well before the high school years.
Toyia Wilson run two 7-12 schools
under the same roof in Rochester.
“There was a lot of frustration with the middle schools,” he says. Achievement levels were particularly low, and the system was experiencing 20 percent to 30 percent annual turnover in middle school teachers, a revolving door that undermined the idea of middle schools providing a stable, guiding hand to young adolescents in the throes of suddenly activated hormones.
“It was horrible,” says Rivera. And in moving on to high school, “the transition from grade eight to nine, with a completely different faculty, 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,” he says. “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.”
Rivera says he had no illusions that reconfiguring grade structure alone would do the trick. “It was much more than changing grade levels,” he says. “We also said, ‘Let’s tackle the curriculum, let’s tackle the training we want to provide for our teachers, let’s create larger blocks of time for our students to focus on reading and math.’” But the key, he says, is continuity, a “seamless accountability system” with students entering a school that would be “responsible for their outcomes six years later.”
THINKING SMALL, AIMING HIGH
In Rivera’s Rochester, the switch to 7-12 is paired with a push to get small, a move that Boston and many other districts are also making. Take John Marshall High School, a sprawling, 1920s-era brick edifice tucked into a residential neighborhood in northwest Rochester. Once a school of about 1,500 students (which has been 7-12 since 1998), Marshall has been broken into two smaller 7-12 schools under the same roof, one retaining the school’s original name, the other called the Northwest College Preparatory School.
The national trend toward smaller schools has been led by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which has poured hundreds of millions of dollars into breaking up US high schools into smaller units. The thinking is much the same as that behind extended grade-span reforms: Students will do better when they can develop supportive bonds with peers and become well known by teachers, things that can be achieved in smaller schools and in schools that students attend for a longer period of time.
Joseph Munno, who has been principal of Marshall for five years and was on the school’s teaching staff for 31 years before that, thinks the revamped structure of grades and size holds promise. Seventh- and eighth-grade English and math teachers now meet together once a day to share strategies and discuss individual students. In another change, students have just four classes per day, which meet for extended 85-minute sessions. “I focus very strongly on math and ELA [English language arts],” says Munno. “I’m down to one kid at a time, where almost every kid has their own program.”
Munno has also sought to turn on its head the common practice of more experienced teachers gravitating toward the higher grades. “I think the best teachers should be with the neediest kids,” says Munno, who has three of his most seasoned math teachers now in eighth-grade classrooms—an example of the administrative leeway made possible by a union contract in Rochester that is regarded as one of the most reform-minded of any big district in the country.
(with sons DeVonté and Tyler and
husband Chris Austin) is wary of
middle schools in Boston.
Marshall students have a long way to go, but the early results have been encouraging. On last year’s state test, eighth-graders recorded a 20-point increase in competency in English, going from 9.9 percent the previous year to 29.9 percent. For math, the school had a one-year jump of 30 points, from 12.0 percent to 42.9 percent making the grade.
In the same building, the Northwest College Preparatory School is one of two new Rochester schools being run under the guidance of the College Board, the organization best known for administering the SAT test. The College Board was funded by the Gates and the Michael and Susan Dell foundations to establish up to 18 schools in New York state that would provide low-income and minority students with a rigorous 6-12 or 7-12 grade curriculum geared toward the successful completion of college.
Northwest Prep admitted its first students—75 seventh-graders and 75 ninth-graders—this fall, and the school will add new classes in each of the coming years until filled out with about 450 students. As Northwest Prep grows, the main John Marshall High will shrink from its current population of 1,380 to between 700 and 800 students. There are three classrooms per grade at Northwest Prep, and the students stay with the same group of classmates for their core academic classes. Teachers receive training in College Board–designed curricula in math and English geared toward preparing student for Advanced Placement classes (all students must take at least two AP classes to graduate) and college.
The school’s mantra is that everyone can go to college, says Toyia Wilson, Northwest Prep’s energetic, 35-year-old principal, who served as an assistant principal under Munno. “It’s not too far out of reach for them.”
That’s a new attitude for Rochester, where college attendance is hardly the norm. The city has the 11th highest child poverty rate in the country, according to the Washington, DC–based nonprofit Children’s Defense Fund, and half of public school students don’t even make it through high school.
That’s why College Board schools like Northwest Prep are drumming the idea of college into students at an early age. Northwest Prep starts taking students on visits to area colleges at the beginning of seventh grade. “So many of them haven’t seen beyond Rochester,” says Wilson, a reference that seems both literal and figurative.
It’s far too early to know whether Rivera’s ambitious restructuring plan will translate into big improvements in outcomes for Rochester’s schools. “The proof points aren’t there yet,” says Helen Santiago, executive director of the College Board’s high school effort, which also includes schools in New York City and Buffalo. But she gives Rivera credit for recognizing the need to be daring. “I like out-of-the-box thinkers,” she says, “and I think it’s something that’s very difficult to do from a high-level position in public education.”
“He’s not afraid to try new things,” says Diego Garcia, president of the Rochester school board. “He makes changes quickly, but gets people to go along with his goals and objectives.”
OWNING THE KIDS
If there is a model for what Rivera is trying to achieve in Rochester—and what some hope he will set his sights on for Boston—it might be found in an aging former elementary school in Worcester. The small red-brick building is home to the University Park Campus School, a 7-12 public school in one of Worcester’s toughest neighborhoods, which has had extraordinary success educating students from working-class families and catapulting them on to college. (See “Worcester’s Wonder,” CW, Spring ’04.)
The school offers an honors-level curriculum across the board, and over the course of its eight-year history, every graduate, 95 percent of whom are first-generation college-goers, has gone off to seek a higher education degree. Some of them haven’t had to go very far. When the school was founded in 1997, Clark University, whose campus sits just blocks from the University Park school, offered to provide four years’ tuition-free education to any graduate of the new school who was accepted through the university’s standard admissions process.
“I thought if we were going to open a new school and we were going to have a shot of getting the kids college-ready, of taking Clark up on the offer of free tuition, we were going to have to start in seventh grade,” says Donna Rodrigues, the school’s founding principal. “If you start in seventh grade, you own the kids,” she says. “The buck stops here.”
Rodrigues, who now works for the Boston–based organization Jobs for the Future, says most entering seventh-graders at University Park are several years behind grade level in reading and math. By getting a head start on high school, however, the school can get even students who arrive reading at a third-grade level (50 percent of the incoming students) ready to tackle University Park’s high school honors curriculum by the time they reach ninth grade. Over the past six years, every single sophomore at the school but one has passed the 10th-grade MCAS test on the first try, and the one student who narrowly missed had transferred to University Park in ninth grade. Averaged over the past five years, 84 percent of University Park 10th-graders have gotten advanced or proficient MCAS scores in both English and math, rivaling the most affluent suburban districts in the state.
Thanks to its extended grade span, University Park can make sure seventh- and eighth-graders are building skills they will need, and develop further, in the upper-level courses they will take in later years. Teachers at the school say that coherence in the curriculum across grades, called “vertical articulation,” is a key to their success, and would be much harder to achieve with separate middle schools and high schools.
One morning in October, Kevin Moylan’s seventh-grade English class is working on “cumulative sentences,” which build clause upon clause to give rich texture to a description. What the students are trying to describe is an image Moylan has projected on the classroom wall, a snapshot of himself on vacation in Ireland.
“Smiling, the ugly guy stood by the side of the road,” comes the offering from one boy, playing the part of a seventh-grader to type.
Moylan isn’t offended, but he isn’t impressed, either, and he pushes for more color and specificity. “If you’re going to insult me, you better insult me with style,” he says, as the class breaks into laughter. “Don’t be boring.”
Moylan’s 10th-grade English students work on the same writing concepts, but it all starts here, explains Restuccia, standing in the back of the class. “The 10th-graders are reading more challenging books and expected to be more accomplished writers,” says Restuccia. “But he’s demanding the same level of thinking skills from seventh-graders.” The idea, says Restuccia, is to have students “start to think like a writer, think like a historian, think like a scientist—even as they are still shoring up their basic skills.”
For Kimberly Surrette, the oldest of 10 children, the expectations at University Park were clear from day one, and the rigor appears to have paid off. “It was the expectation that you were going to college, there weren’t any ‘ifs’ about it,” says Surrette, 20, now a junior at Clark on full scholarship. Surrette comes back to tutor at University Park, where four of her siblings are currently enrolled.
There is also little room for “ifs” and “buts” at Boston Collegiate Charter School, a 400-student school near the Dorchester–South Boston line that serves children in grades five through 12, and, like University Park, has an impressive record of achievement with a predominantly low-income urban school population. Its name telegraphs the school’s relentless message that college should be in every student’s future. School cofounder Brett Peiser says the school’s extended grade span has been a key part of translating that message into reality.
“The reason why Boston Collegiate has had four years of everyone passing 10th-grade math and English” on the state MCAS exam “comes directly from the fact that we start with our kids in the fifth grade,” he says. Over the last three years, among a student body where only about one in four has a parent who attended college, every Boston Collegiate graduate has been accepted to a four-year college.
Boston’s public schools seem ripe for a discussion of different grade structures, and not just because of the imminent arrival of Manny Rivera and his outside-the-box thinking on the matter. Last fall, the Boston School Department named a 17-member Middle Grades Task Force.
At the Rafael Hernandez School, which in 1991 became the second Boston elementary school to convert to the K-8 structure, veteran principal Margarita Muniz echoes University Park’s Donna Rodrigues and her vow that “the buck stops here.”
“Our students are our students,” says Muniz. Many of the 370 students at the Hernandez, a two-way bilingual school in which all students strive to become fluent in both English and Spanish, spend nine years at the school. “We’re not blaming anyone for our failures and we bask in our successes. So we work very hard to make sure we have very few failures.”
Few failures, indeed. The school’s most recent seventh-grade English MCAS scores not only surpass Boston’s district average, they exceed the statewide average, a claim that few urban schools can make.
The K-8 movement in Boston has been driven in part by parents, who like the idea of their children staying at a school they have come to know—and who are wary of the city’s middle schools, many of which are notoriously troubled. According to a preliminary report from the Middle Grades Task Force reports, 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 for the upper-grades configuration that Rivera installed in Rochester, or variations on it. One school hoping to expand in such a manner is TechBoston Academy, one of eight pilot high schools in Boston, which are district schools that operate free of many union work rules.
TechBoston, which integrates technology and computer coursework 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 schools’ grade span, because they find themselves struggling to get ninth-graders up to par. “They see what we could do if we had the kids earlier,” she says. There is also support for such a move from parents, who are eager to have younger siblings of TechBoston students immersed sooner in its culture of high standards and benefiting from its longer school day.
Linda Nathan, headmaster of Boston Arts Academy, another pilot high school, is working on a proposal for an arts academy for middle school grades. She says students would get more out of Boston Arts Academy’s interdisciplinary approach to learning—incorporating a sophisticated understanding of anatomy and physiology into its dance program, for example—if their middle-school studies were geared to preparing them for it. “We’re teaching engineering in the ninth grade, and they need a different kind of exposure to math earlier on,” she says.
One approach would be a variant on the 6-12 or 7-12 grade model: establishing a separate arts-centered middle school, from which many, but not necessarily all, students would move on to the arts high school, admission to which is based on audition or portfolio.
This type of “feeder school” model is already in place between a Dorchester elementary school and middle school. Since 2005, all fifth-graders at the Patrick O’Hearn Elementary School have been guaranteed a seat for sixth grade, if they want it, at the Harbor School, a pilot middle school, rather than having to vie for a middle-school slot in the city’s lottery-based choice system. Of last school year’s 35 O’Hearn fifth-graders, 20 moved into sixth grade seats this year at the Harbor School, which is itself exploring the possibility of becoming a 6-12 school.
Henderson, the O’Hearn’s veteran principal, says such reforms are overdue in a system where students leaving elementary school have long been cast out into what he calls a middle school “diaspora.” Boston has suffered, he says, because of a lack of “community and continuity” in its schools.
Although O’Hearn students move on to a new school, they do so as a group. What’s more, two fifth-grade teachers at the O’Hearn have been given four hours a week to meet with Harbor School teachers and help them understand individual learning issues of their new students. “If our kids were going to nine different schools, realistically, we can’t help nine different schools with transitions, in depth,” says Henderson.
For Alice McCabe, the feeder school relationship between the O’Hearn and Harbor schools presents the kind of dilemma many Boston parents would love to have. Although McCabe has been working part-time as a paid coordinator of the new O’Hearn–Harbor School link, it is not certain that her 9-year-old son, Tyler, now in fourth grade at the O’Hearn, will make the move to Harbor. She and her husband, Chris Austin, could also opt to send him next year to the 5-12 grade Boston Collegiate Charter School, where his older brother, DeVonté, now in sixth grade, has been thriving.
“I had no sense that there was a middle school in Boston that I wanted to send him to,” McCabe says of DeVonté, 11. For Tyler, she says, “I feel I have two pretty good choices.”
What the K-8, 7-12, and feeder-school models all have in common is they are alternatives to the hop, skip, and jump from elementary school to middle school to high school. Each additional leap in this game of hopscotch is fraught with educational peril, experts say.
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 also 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 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.”
Neil Sullivan, executive director of the Boston Private Industry Council, a business-backed agency that coordinates workforce training programs and has been influential in efforts to reshape Boston high schools, supports the idea of reducing the number of school transitions each student must endure, especially in Boston’s case. Because the district’s elementary schools end with fifth grade, students who attend one of the city’s three examination high schools, which start in seventh grade, often attend three different schools in three years. “From the perspective of a young person’s development, a lens we don’t use often enough, it’s absurd,” says Sullivan.
But in terms of when transitions should best take place, “there isn’t a clear victor” in the limited research on K-8 schools and 7-12 grade structures, says Paul Reville, president of the Cambridge–based Rennie Center for Education Research & Policy. The only emerging consensus, he says, is that “middle school is a weak point.”
For their part, however, leaders at Worcester’s University Park Campus School wonder whether the K-8 model, which has gained support in Boston largely because parents lack confidence in the city’s middle schools, provides the same path to high achievement as expanded secondary schools.
“If there are schools interested in moving in that direction, that is clearly something I would want to support,” Rivera says of 6-12 or 7-12 grade schools in Boston. But he gives no indication of imposing the model more broadly here. “You want major change to be owned by the people who have responsibility for the students,” says Rivera. At the same time, school leaders in Rochester say Rivera also has a gift for getting others to sign on to his plans.
Elizabeth Reilinger, president 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.
Contompasis, the interim superintendent, says the practical issues of finding facilities for expanded grade-span schools are daunting enough in a district with 58,000 students. For example, 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. “The good news is people are thinking, and they’re thinking about different configurations and approaches.”
Peiser, cofounder of the Boston Collegiate Charter School, says that an expanded grade structure is just one of many ingredients that set high-achieving urban schools apart. Boston Collegiate, he noted, also has longer school days and a longer school year than Boston’s district public schools.“Effective schools are based on a hundred 1-percent solutions, not one 100-percent solution,” he says.
But none of that argues against rethinking school grade structures as part of the answer. Marilynn Patterson-Grant, the chief of academics and small school development for the Rochester schools, is the point person responsible for putting the city’s move to smaller 7-12 grade schools in place. If there is one thing she has learned over the course of 31 years in public schools, she says, it’s that “if you continue to do the same thing, you’ll get the same result.”