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Every time I hear “experts” talk about finding the next great thing to improve education I want to scream. Why are we trying to reinvent the wheel? Why don’t we use successful models to help struggling schools and districts?
I am going to share with you what was a successful urban middle school as well as a successful suburban school district as examples of why consistency and organization are essential if we want good schools for all children.
I taught in what was for many years a very successful urban middle school. I taught at this school and can tell you that as new middle schools were opened principals and staff were sent to visit us to see how well things could work. My school was built to house approximately 1200 students in grades 5 thru 8. Because of the size and the age group the building was divided into four "houses," each having its own lunchroom. Students only left their house to go to electives. Our first principal was very supportive of both students and teachers. Discipline was not his strong suit because his background was in counseling, but he was smart enough to be sure that his two assistant principals were strong but fair disciplinarians. Each house had a director who taught a few classes and also was available to make parent contacts and help with minor discipline problems.
The organization and consistency that we had originated from administration but teachers were welcome to make suggestions that would improve how the school functioned. Administration also fostered the idea that the entire school was a family. This was emphasized at the beginning of each year when incoming fifth graders were greeted in the auditorium by the entire administrative team. Parents were welcome to attend. The administrators explained what was expected of students. The layout of the school was described and the 5th grade teachers were introduced to their new students. For the first week of school these teachers walked their classes to electives so that they would know the proper routes to take and they easily fit into the structure of the school.
When we got new students in grades six thru eight they were given a similar introduction and their integration into their classes was handled by the house directors. These students were given a buddy who would help them navigate the building until they were comfortable with the layout. Consistency and organization continued for many years, in part because when a principal left he was replaced by the promotion of an assistant principal who kept the basics in place and made tweaks when necessary.
The idea of consistency and organization can also be applied to an entire district. The example that I am sharing is the district that my oldest great niece Ari attends. Ari is about to go into 5th grade which in her district is the start of middle school. She and her friends seem completely calm about this transition which made me take a look at the organization of her district.
This suburban district is an area school district serving one township and two boroughs. The demographics are varied in both race and economics. The income range goes from those who are eligible for subsidized lunches to those who are economically upper middle class.
There are a total of six schools in the district – four elementary schools, one middle school, and one high school. The four elementary schools have grades K-4. The township has two elementary schools, and each borough has one elementary school. During the summer the district runs a summer camp where all of the students from across the district interact. This allows them to get to know other children in the district before they all come together in middle school. To further help with transition into middle school there is an evening meeting for parents and incoming fifth graders in August to familiarize everyone with how the middle school functions. A similar orientation is held for the incoming ninth graders at the high school.
This district is also very consistent in the placement of principals. Teachers from within the district are often promoted to become assistant principals. Some have also been promoted from assistant principal at the middle school to assistant principal at the high school. This allows administrators to be familiar with what happens at the lower school level. Even when a new principal is hired from outside of the district there is transition time for the new principal to observe how the current principal has been running the school.
It might be time for us to look at replicating what already works in successful models before we continue to throw out the baby with the bath water.
If you have worked in a successful school or district that is organized and consistent please leave a comment.