Pasadena Unified overhauls its middle schools

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Increasingly, California school districts are rethinking instruction at their middle schools. Weak test scores and new research about what works is jump-starting some of the changes. KPCC's Adolfo Guzman-Lopez reports that one Southland school district is ahead of the pack.

Adolfo Guzman-Lopez: You don't have to tell parents and teachers of middle school students that hardcore developmental changes happen during the sixth, seventh, and eighth grades. A recent lunchtime visit to a middle school suggests that it's an awkward time for girls.

Girl: It's lonely.
Guzman-Lopez: What do you mean?
Girl: Like, I don't know, like, there's no cute guys. (laughs)

Guzman-Lopez: And for boys.

Guzman-Lopez: So what do you do for fun?
Boy 1: Just talk and tell jokes, I guess.
Guzman-Lopez: Tell me a good one.
Boy 1: (laughs) I don't know any good ones, he's the one with the jokes.
Boy 2: Um, OK, there's these two blond chicks, (Boy 1 laughs) they're in a car, and the one in the driver's seat asks the one in the passenger seat if her blinkers are on. So she stuck out her head, and she said, yes, no, yes, no. Because it kept on going on and off.

Guzman-Lopez: Welcome to Washington Middle School in Pasadena. Sydney Minckler's taught these grades for 12 years.

Sydney Minckler: I think we need to remember that they are children. They're not adults. They're young adults, and they're making that bridge. We have to embrace the fact that they're still kids.

Guzman-Lopez: Student social development most definitely affects the way Minckler teaches.

Minckler: They love to play, and they're so, they get so much more engaged if it is a playful attitude. Even though we do lots of things with rigor, and they do lots of exercises, they're much more willing to do that if it's approached in a playful manner.

Guzman-Lopez: For more than a year, Pasadena Unified School District administrators have delved into the minds of young teens to try and improve classroom learning. This month, the school district unveiled significant reforms to its three middle schools. Pasadena Unified Superintendent Edwin Diaz visited Minckler's class and others at Washington Middle School. Edwin Diaz: This year is the first year for our implementation of our Excellent Middle Schools Plan that is a key initiative for us as a school district.

Guzman-Lopez: The school district's hired about a dozen teachers, reworked teacher planning time, and put all students on so-called block schedules.

Marian Stewart: This is a seventh grade– excuse me, a sixth grade Math class...

Guzman-Lopez: This and every other class is an hour and a half long, says Washington principal Marian Stewart. Students take math and English every day.

Marian Stewart: We're hoping that the extra time will allow the teachers to teach to mastery, introduce some of the more hands-on techniques so that the kids can actually grasp the concept and not just kind of mull over it, more project-based learning where they can demonstrate what they've actually learned.

Guzman-Lopez: Demonstrate it to teachers that students feel care about them. The teachers' group planning time allows them to identify best practices and to talk about students beginning to fall behind. State education officials applaud Pasadena Unified's reforms.

Rozlynn Worrall: Middle schools are just basically the most important grade level.

Guzman-Lopez: Rozlynn Worrall heads the California Department of Education's Middle and High School Improvement Office.

Worrall: Truthfully, a lot of students will check out of school, at least in their brains, in the middle school. They either decide it's something that they want to do, or something that they don't.

Guzman-Lopez: Lots of middle school students in Pasadena and other urban school districts have decided they don't. About half of Washington Middle School students scored below or far below basic competency on the most recent English and math standardized tests. District-wide, middle school test scores aren't as bad.

This year, the California Department of Education launched an Internet resource guide for school district officials considering changes at their middle schools. Some educators suggest scrapping the way this country structures its schools. UCLA education researcher Jeannie Oakes says most countries keep students on the same campus from kindergarten through eighth grade.

Jeannie Oakes: Being in a school where everyone knows you well, and has known you for a long time, and is more characterized by the relationships between teachers and students of the elementary grades, seems to be a better fit with young adolescents.

Guzman-Lopez: Doing away with middle schools is a tall, expensive order. The state isn't handing out additional money with its middle school improvement recommendations. Pasadena Unified's secret? A two-year private grant of $600,000 each year.