L in the Southeast

L in the Southeast
Atlanta, Georgia, United States
November 04
Retired PR Director
I am a retired Public Relations professional who now writes purely for fun and catharsis. I covered most of my memoir-type pieces in the first three years here. Lately I have dabbled in politics, current affairs, pop culture and movie reviews. Life is my muse.


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AUGUST 10, 2011 9:13PM

Why Middle Schools Were A Mistake

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Middle schools kids

A long, long, long time ago, back when I was a very young girl and cars had running boards, there were no junior high schools or middle schools.  The Catholic school I attended offered grades 1 through 8, and each of those grades had one teacher who taught everything, all in one room.  In the latter half of my elementary years, the parish popped for a music teacher who happened to be a lay person; classroom teachers were Dominican nuns.

It is unclear to me why I was gifted with a memory for little details that occurred decades, nay eons ago, but I am able to remember with almost frightening clarity how it felt to be in those classrooms year after year.  In a nutshell, I loved it.

As a first grader I thought the eighth grade students were practically grownups and I treated them with respect and awe.  They seemed to like that a lot, when they weren’t teasing us or tousling our hair.  I remember that from a purely aspirational point of view I was drawn to the idea of moving down the hallways through the series of grades until I was “older” and moved up to the second floor, where the big kids studied.

I wasn’t yet the little imp I turned out to be in adulthood , so I was one of those despicable children who tried to do everything right so I could be chosen to do special “honors” like taking notes to a nun in another classroom or passing out textbooks.  My gregarious personality got me into trouble for talking too much sometimes – total silence was demanded at all times unless called upon by Sister – but when I kept a lid on it well enough, it wasn’t exactly unfair when classmates would call me a Brown-Nosed Teacher’s Pet.

By the time I was in eighth grade, I was sometimes asked to substitute for an absent teacher in the primary rooms for the entire day.  Imagine how important, respected and trusted I felt when that happened.  Those little children were now looking up to me as a near grownup and I would do nothing to disabuse them of that notion.  Of course, in today’s fractious environment, those nuns would find themselves in the local clink, next to the drunk tank.

I’m not saying the upper-grade students were somehow spared the friskiness, the sudden heightened interest in the oppositely gendered (or the same gendered, for that matter, although I knew nothing about homosexuality until much later – like college!) The interest was there, but the eight years of behavioral training kept most of that in check. 

What a contrast to the experience my son had when he briefly worked as a substitute teacher in Atlanta Public Schools.  One of the girls in a sixth grade class actually propositioned him!  And yes, I’m talking about a sexual proposition.  He was so put off by it, he refused any future assignments in middle school or higher.  But I digress.

By the time I had to suffer the rank humiliation of becoming a mere freshman at the huge public high school I opted to attend in lieu of the Catholic girls’ academy, I had negotiated my way through the startling changes my body was undergoing in an environment that was familiar and non-hostile.  For the most part, I had spent all eight of those years with the same 20–25 children.  The pecking orders were well established, the alliances were subject to frequent change but predictable and all the impressions had long been made.  There was little need for the kind of posturing and preening that occurs when a child changes school buildings and locations.

Yes, I fell from my little perch and had to start from the bottom again, but I was far better prepared for that process than I would have been when entering sixth or seventh grade. 

Somewhere between then and now, shapers of educational methodology decided there needed to be a step added to better prepare tweens for the blackboard jungle known as high school, and for some reason they believed that step needed to be taken in a separate building.  Also, instead of being instructed by a single teacher, aside from an occasional music and/or art specialist, there would be a team of teachers teaching their respective subjects in a tandem manner, keeping each subject relevant to a larger, predetermined theme.

Sounds good, right?  The idea concentrates all the attention and planning on a smaller age-span and allows the school to better tailor the curriculum to that age group’s needs.  Except, I don’t think it really accomplishes that.  In fact, I think the change has caused those tweens to lose more than they are gaining.

Surging hormone overload creates a highly charged atmosphere in the building, with no relief anywhere, comic or otherwise.  There are no little children to “look after” for the more nurturing, sensitive types.  Instead, they become prey for the aggressively inclined, and allow words like “lame” and “that’s so gay” to penetrate their fragile or yet-to-exist self-confidence.  The youngest among them, instead of looking up to the seventh and eighth graders, live in fear of attracting their negative notice.

The junior high concept, confined to just seventh and eighth grades, was scary enough.  I laugh whenever I remember the orientation meeting for my son’s first junior high year, in which the principal called junior high school a state of temporary insanity.  Many of the children in sixth grade are clearly not yet ready for a plunge into the cuckoo’s nest.

Just as I believe it is a mistake for seniors to live in seniors-only environments, I believe it is an injustice to all concerned to separate the younger students from those older, temporarily insane ones.  The world is not getting more homogeneous, it is decidedly less so every year.  It is important to learn to not just survive but to thrive among people of all ages and all hormonal states.  In my opinion, middle schools do very little to help that along.

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I agree, but I was in so many schools with different agendas It was scary. I guess there isn't just one "magic bullet",but if there is, I don't know it!.
Oh, I so agree with you! Junior High students need the older and the younger students to balance them out. Schools are just too darn big. I think you really spelled it out perfectly. Ahh, I wish change wasn't so slow.
They're talking in our district about going back to the jr. high system, but for budgetary reasons, so they won't hafta build any more middles schools. What's good for the kids is always the last concern with public school officials.
Scanner: The magic bullet is to focus on the pupil, the customer, and not on the needs of the administration. That bullet has been all but lost today.

Z: I have never felt so frustrated about the lack of progress anywhere.

Matt: Running a school is a tough job, I absolutely know that. As usual, though, everybody is chasing after dollar, not scholars.
So true! I've been ranting about the existence of middle schools for years...lumping those particular ages together in large numbers, only those ages, and expecting to have a healthy outcome in the name of education, or anything else, is just beyond reason...don't they know a thing about children? humans? education?
The lengths our family is going to to keep our youngest in a smaller alternative K-8 through middle school years...ai yi yi.
Glad you brought this up.
I also went to Catholic schools so I understand your experience.
My sister used to say that middle school should be elimated, instead kids should do a 2 year intern program learning how to do important things like fix a toilet, change a tire, use a screwdriver, use math to cook a great meal, repair a bicycle, paint a house, hammer a nail, etc. That way they could do real work, master real things to help self esteem, use their brains and bodies, help their communities, rather than put in the 'holding pens' of middle school. Start the movement, will you L?
Oh, don't get me started. I'm living it right now... one in 6th and one in 8th. Perhaps a coming blog post. Yes, I agree with every word. Kids can be so hateful at this age, for no good reason other than they can.
I'm not really sure I agree, Lezlie. In our town, students are separated by age all through school. Kindegarten and 1st grade go to one school, 2nd & 3rd to another, 4th & 5th to another, etc. Kids go to school with the same kids throughout their school experience. The kids all seemed happy, the teachers are happy with it, the parents are happy and even the Tea Party-ish Board of Education candidates are happy with it. There has never been any trouble that I'm aware of. Nobody in our town even hints at wanting to change it, and that's fine with me.
Interesting piece. My kids attend a K-8 school on the same small campus. I think that would be consistent with what you're advocating. The idea is to keep the middle-schoolers on the campus with younger kids, rather than put middle schoolers with high schoolers.
jr. high was hell. The middle schools in my city are horrific. This makes every sense and if schools were based on what the research shows about social and emotional development we would eliminate middle schools. We'd go back to a one-room school type environment.
My junior high was 7, 8, 9. I was a division director in a number of middle schools. When I was an admin in a middle-high in VT, there were well over 20 grade-configurations that were called 'middle school'.

I think the dilution idea you raise here is a very good one.

I grew up with the middle school idea firmly in place, and never really thought about how different it could have been. The way you present your elementary school experience does sound like it would be a better idea to mix young teens and kids. On the other hand, I think it might also depend on school discipline and values, as well as other factors. You were in a Catholic school and that usually means more structure and a certain spiritual common ground. I worry that if you put eighth graders with younger kids, at least some of the older ones might pick on some of the younger ones, or get them into drugs, etc. I think it might be me being cynical, and what your post most makes me want is for educators and other professionals to re-examine the middle school idea. Food for thought indeed.....
I started school in a parochial school, like yourself. I survived kindergarten, first and second grade there. I hated it. I and one other student in my grade were years ahead of our peers, but were forced to sit and shut up and be bored all day long.

Public school was a far better option for me. It gave me a chance to be sorted into advanced classes that were closer to my speed and level, and introduced me to a larger body of peers. And having different ages at different schools was, I think, a definite benefit for everyone. It let the younger kids have loud, energetic lessons without bothering the more traditionally studious older kids. It also gave us a sense of belonging--we were among peers. Nobody was so much older that they could boss us around; nobody was so much younger that they needed to be looked after (or looked out for).

But we still had chances, on special occasions, to spend time with those who were younger and older. We'd go for field days, concerts, and special assemblies. This let us be a loose-knit community without constantly being in each other's way.
Thanks, everyone, for sharing your opinions on this question. I am by no means advocating the concentration camp-like tactics of some Catholic schools or the squelching of enrichment for all levels of ability. I was also one of the so-called gifted, but in the environment I lucked into, we were met where we were on the continuum. The public school in my current Atlanta neighborhood is outstanding and has the misfortune of being painted with the same brush as the schools who were involved in the cheating scandals. My argument isn't public versus private at all. I refused to send my own son to private school for different reasons, and moved into a town that had an outstanding public school system. My argument is against separating tween-agers from the younger and children in general.
I think I always took the separation for granted, but this article has me thinking. ~r
I went to public school in the Midwest, and we were divided into Lower School and Upper School. For Lower School, the country kids stayed in the one-room schools, but once we hit 7th grade, they came to town and we all attended Upper School together. Seventh grade was the age at which we could be pulled out of school to help with farm chores like the corn harvest, and once we were teenagers, we knew childhood was over and we had to start growing up.
Well now I may have not propositioned your son in 6th grade(quite disgusting indeed), but thirty years ago...watch out. :) Great subject matter, L.
Oh, I agree. Middle school is of the devil. I think it's good for older kids to be around younger ones; I'm 20 and even for me, being around my little brother and sister, aged 9 and 6, reminds me not to take myself so seriously. Young teens could use that, too.
I think that I agree with you. I worked for two years with middle schoolers. I have retired from that age group, haha. I will teach high school, or elementary, but nothing in between. After working with 8th graders last year, I'm looking forward to teaching a 5th grade class this year.
I got a taste of those years both ways. Some of the schools I attended had sixth, seventh and eighth grade with the elementary, some few had it seperated and one even had nineth grade with the elementary school. that messed me up when I switched schools mid year and didn't have access to the classes I would have had nineth been at the high school.

I am not sure there is any true right or wrong in how the grades are set up. It has more to do with the agenda of the schools.

When I went to a private christian school things were much more focused. Public schools seem so much more wild.

I wouldn't want to be a teacher in any grade under 9th. I see the schools getting a bad rap, but some of it is the parents and lack of teaching their children to show adults proper respect -- which I believe should be recipicated by adults ie teachers.

Wonderful thought provoking blog.

Most New Orleans schools (public AND private) operate on the K-8 and 9-12 model, with some (both public and private) running K-12.

I'm not entirely sure how this all works out, or if there's a magic solution.

For me, junior high was a vast improvement over my Catholic grade school. Having different teachers for different subjects was exactly what I needed. In the one teacher for all subjects model, if the student and teacher don't get along, they're pretty much screwed. There's also the issue that someone who is good at teaching math may not be very good at teaching English, and when you start to get into the basics of things like algebra and literary analysis like you do (or at least should) in junior high, this does really start to make a difference.

The school district next door to where I grew up divided them K-6 and 7-12.
Like you, I went to a parochial K-8. Unlike you, I HATED it! I begged my parents on a weekly basis to allow me to go to public school. Being stuck with the same group of 35 kids was awful. By the 8th grade I wanted to push them all off of a cliff.

I was always bored. I thought of school as a prison and class time as torture. However, I was a voracious reader and as soon as I could get into one of my own books, I could escape all of that.

Having kids in public school has been something of an education. The "mean girl" thing definitely does rear its head in those years, but it does at parochial school too. In fact, at my friend's daughter's parochial school it is even worse because the moms get involved and are backstabbing in attempt to position themselves in their own pecking order.

My daughter is now in high school, which is certainly better in that regard. My son is now in 7th. He has been tested in elementary and has a 160 IQ. But he hates doing "paperwork" and half the time misplaces the paper before turning it in. I can't even imagine how he would function in my old school. It would be awful. Unfortunately, state budget cuts are reducing the gifted program in our district and he will be getting less in differentiated class time. Its not just the curriculum, it is a chance for him to be with kids like himself who are interested in really talking about things that are interesting.

It has been frustrating, but there are no good school choices. And I don't think homeschooling would work well either. It is the age between elementary and high school. Just have to get through it.
Again, I really appreciate all your thoughtful responses. Clearly there is no viable one-size-fits-all for schooling. So much depends on the child's personality and temperament, the chemistry between teacher and child, and, above all, the role the parent chooses to play. And no teacher below 11th grade should be expected to handle 35 students in once classroom. As a former teacher, I find that number ridiculous.
And--when I was a school admin in VT in the late '80s, there were, throughout the state, over a dozen grade-level combinations that were called 'middle school'.
L: My son starts Catholic Kinder on Monday...so glad to hear your report! I like that possible aspect, of no change in demographics until H.S. Now, I went to a public school but in a tiny town...so all the middle was the same as the H.S. - which I didn't like, but I see in retrospect it served me well. 6th grade was rough for me, though, wish I had been able to wait until 9th for the big changing courses switch. Also, I know in the mid size city I live in now, Middle Schools are the worst performing, and least attended to: many reforms in PK-3 and 9+, but the middle gets forgotten...that seems to be true of many urban districts.

Always smart ideas in your blog!
Well done and said Lezlie.
I went to a middle school for years 7-9, and it was fine. However, the senior high was next door, and I was in gifted classes for all years 6-12, with our own teachers, different books, and different expectations regarding college. It meant nothing to me that the older high school kids were over in the senior high. I'm not sure why it would matter. The arguments above for doing away with middle school sound to me like arguments for having it.

I have no complaints regarding my education, and thought it was tragic that they did away with the separate gifted classes after my class graduated. The only classes we had with gen pop was phys-ed and home-ec or shop.

The best part about the gifted classes was the extra music. The gifted students all got flutophones in grade 6 and were taught to play them as a class. I don't understand why that isn't far more common. You can buy them in bulk very cheaply, and no knowledge of music fails to enrich one's life forever.

The gifted classes and the middle school environment I had growing up would have been hugely beneficial for my husband, who hated school because he was wasn't challenged to his abilities and he was constantly being pointed out as the kid who wrecked the grading curve and so on. He dropped out of high school. They sent him a diploma anyway, but the damage was done. He was then accepted into an Ivy League university, but still hated school so much because of his high school experience that he dropped out of that too, to his detriment and lifelong regret.

Okay, my husband is a powerful argument for separate gifted classes more than for middle schools, but either way, I see the enormous benefit of my young education compared to his. My community did it well. His got it all wrong, and the differences are not rocket science.
Great post...thanks for sharing your positive experience of a 1-8 school, Lezlie! I totally agree, an environment that is familiar and non-hostile can make such a huge difference.

My son really, really struggled in his large middle school, where they changed classroom and students every period. On the other hand, my daughter had a wonderful experience in a small magnet middle school of 400 students, which had a strong program of community building, appreciation of diversity, respect and caring. The students were with the same group of kids for most of the day, and felt part of the team. It made all the difference for her.

It's so important that the kids feel they belong, and somebody cares about them, especially at that age. Thanks for mentioning the 1-8 school option...the large middle schools may not be the best model.
Great post--my personal experiences are in sync with your observations.
I agree with your assessment of this situation - I have one in high school and one that has one more year of elementary before middle school - I think the concept of middle school got lost a long time ago. I think older kids would behave themselves better if they knew little eyes were watching