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Know Your Rights
Source: The Brooklyn Rail
Subject: Education Justice
Type: Media Coverage

Middle School Initiative Challenges Education as Usual

When Placida Rodriguez’s two sons were approaching middle school age, she knew
that she didn’t want them to attend their neighborhood junior high.

“Every year the test
scores in Bushwick go down,” she says.

Like other concerned
parents, Rodriguez wants her
children to be academically and socially challenged. “Kids need to feel
passionate about going to school,” she continues. “In some places the teachers
don’t care, or they do care but don’t have the resources. In some middle
schools the students can’t make experiments because there are no science labs.
These students never get to see how good a science class can be.”

Rodriguez is a parent
Make the Road, a Brooklyn community
group whose mission is the promotion of “economic justice, equity and
opportunity for all New Yorkers.” She understands the power of advocacy and
managed to get her sons into two of the finest middle schools in the borough: J.H.S. 383 and J.H.S. 318.

But what of those with
less savvy?

Educational experts know
that kids’ interest in school begins to lag in sixth grade due to social
adjustment problems and academic difficulties. They also know that students
without a solid academic foundation flounder, and often fail, when they get to
high school.

According to a statement
issued by the New York City Coalition for Educational Justice, a group of nine
organizations that came together in the Fall of 2006 to focus on racial and
class bias in middle schools, “All parents want their children to graduate high
school and succeed in college. Unfortunately, this dream is far from reality
for thousands of NYC families whose children are
attending middle schools that are failing.”

CEJ’s philosophy is simple: If you improve
middle school education and get kids hooked on learning, they’ll perform better
later. Their first approach was to study the differences between high and low
performing programs, comparing schools with standardized test scores that fell
below the state average with those that fell above. Their findings were
predictable. Students in rigorous academic programs—including Regent’s classes
in the 8th grade—have more confidence when starting high school, and are more
likely to graduate in four years with a Regent’s diploma—New York state’s
certification of academic excellence.

CEJ also discovered a stark economic
and racial achievement gap. Only 27 percent of Latino and 29 percent of African
American kids finished high school with Regents honors in 2007. Worse, they
found that the lowest performing schools were 100 percent Black and Latino.

Once again, says CEJ, results hearken back to middle schools. Last year’s
scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a test given to all
8th graders, revealed that fewer than half of the city’s kids read, write or
compute at grade level. In low-income communities of color in East
, for example, the rate plummeted to 25 percent. Among
Black and Latino 8th graders citywide, the rate is 30 percent. Small wonder,
then, that Regents completion rates are so dismal and that many teens never
finish their high school educations in these communities.

Clearly, something has to
be done—and fast.

To their credit, City
officials seem to get it. A report released by the Middle School Task Force of
the City Council in July 2007 concludes that, “If our students are to succeed
in post-secondary education or training, make the transition to productive
careers, and contribute to their communities as thoughtful and informed
citizens, the foundation must be adequately reinforced throughout the middle

Toward that end, the
Department of Education has contributed $15 million—$5 million a year for three
years—to improve 51 low-performing programs in the five boroughs, 14 of them in
Brooklyn. Most schools received their
allocation—roughly $100,000 each—in November 2007. Principals then decide how
the money will be spent, focusing on faculty development and academic
enrichment, including extended day programs. What’s more, the City has also
established an Office of Middle Grade Initiatives and has promised to offer
Regents classes and build science labs in every middle school by 2010.

I.S. 302, a low-performing school in
Cypress Hills, is one of the grantees funded by the Initiative. “Research has
proven that where students have extracurricular interests, it enhances
academics,” says principal Lisa Linder, who has been at the school since last
September. Linder is using the extra funds to start a school band, create a drama
program, and teach dance and visual arts classes. A Saturday enrichment program
has also been launched.

“When I got to the school
and started poking around I discovered a plethora of instruments stored away
behind the stage,” she says. “I’ve partnered with Creative Educational Services
to start a school band and we were able to give instruments to 60 kids.
Initially, the students were reluctant to get involved, but they’re now really
excited. Creative Educational Services went from class to class to get the
students interested. Some of the students didn’t know what a trumpet was, what
a flute was, before this. We’ve also bought 30 keyboards that are affixed to
desks so that we can teach the piano.”

While it is too soon to
know if Linder’s approach will raise test scores, she is encouraged by
skyrocketing attendance rates and increased parental involvement since the
Initiative was announced.

The goal, of course, is
for each of the City’s 588 middle schools to offer classes that capture student
interest and improve critical thinking. “This is a civil rights issue,” says
Zakiyah Ansari, a CEJ parent leader and mother of eight
from Brownsville.
“Our kids can do the work but they need an even playing field: qualified
teachers, up-to-date books, science labs, and art, sports and music classes.”

“Teacher retention is
also key,” adds Esther Bu, a CEJ member active in
Cypress Hills Advocates for Education. Bu says she realized there was a problem
several years ago, when she discovered that most middle schools teachers are
inexperienced; fewer than half have spent more than five years in a classroom.
“When kids see different teachers every year, they say, forget it. These
teachers don’t really care about us. They won’t be here next year anyway, so
why bother?” But supports mentorship and in-service training, and supports Lead
teacher programs that pair experienced faculty with neophytes.

In addition to pedagogy,
Beth Baylin, a Park Slope therapist who specializes in treating children and
adolescents, urges educators to keep social and emotional development front and
center. “It’s not just about increasing the money,” she says. “When a kid comes
to middle school, it’s a new environment and issues of safety are very
important. They may not have safety at home, so emotional safety in school is
crucial. Middle school age is the time when we learn that the world is a
complex place and we begin to find our place in it. It is also a time when,
biologically, the pre-frontal cortex is developing. This helps us think, not
just act impulsively. Educators are often preoccupied with curricular concerns
so that kids can pass the tests. They sometimes forget that students can’t
attend to this if their emotional needs are not being met. Teachers need to
think about children empathetically, helping them to bond with caring figures
who believe in them.”

the Road
Parent Advocate Placida Rodriguez wholeheartedly agrees, “Kids go
down if they don’t have support and a way to spend their energy. Parents,
teachers and principals know that every school needs more counselors and social
workers.” Educating the whole child, she adds, requires instructors to focus on
both emotions and intellect. In the end, $5 million, or even $15 million, may
improve the worst middle schools, but a lot more is needed to really improve
the learning environment for New York