Friday, January 12, 2007

Middle School

I'm just catching up with last Sunday's NYTimes, as usual at the end of a week. By the time I read it nothing is really news any more, but it's still interesting to see what was on the Grey Lady's mind earlier in the week. Last Sunday it was, among other things, middle school (or, preteens).

Where I live parents start obsessing about middle school when their kids are in second grade, if not earlier. It's playground talk, cocktail party chatter, coffee hour conversation. We have elementary schools we like, both public and private, and then the black hole.

Not really, of course. In fact there are lots of options here, which may be part of the problem. There are two small private middle schools with innovative curriculums, one for girls and one for boys, both encompassing grades 5-8. There are private K-12 schools, both co-ed and single-sex, that take in new kids in either 5th or 6th. There is a preK-8 Montessori school, where Mariah did 7th and 8th grade quite happily. (This one's very small and 7th and 8th meet together, with the same teachers.) There are a couple of parochial schools that run K-8 and seem to take new kids in pretty much whenever. There is an IB middle school within a larger public school. And there are a couple of "model" public middle schools, one within walking distance of our house.

So what's the problem? I think, as the article suggests, the problem is that there is no one-size-fits-all model for this age group (roughly 11-14 or so). In fact I'm not sure that 10-14 is even, really, a coherent "age group." Actually, I'm quite sure it isn't. Have you ever seen an 11-year-old boy stand next to a 14-year-old girl? They might be from different species.

The single-sex schools do a good job of serving a small number of kids. They are warm and friendly and, as I said, innovative. But they ask you to pull your kid from his/her familiar elementary school a year early, and a lot of kids (Mariah was one) don't want to do that. (They also don't have nearly enough spaces for the kids who want them, which is both their greatest asset--they have very small classes--and, for many, their greatest drawback.)

The other privates have their advantages and disadvantages: it's hard to break into a cohesive community (and, for the most part, these are) in pre-adolescence; they are expensive; they can be socially very exclusive for the parents as well as the kids. But they seem to do a good job educating the children who go there.

The public schools look like fortresses. There is no grass around them. Kids stand around on the blacktop during recess looking like convicts in a prison yard. Mariah spent a year in one and ran screaming in the other direction, to the touchy-feely Montessori school where the whole group went for a walk/run every afternoon. But some of her high school friends stuck it out and got a reasonably good education (including honors credits that transferred to their high school, unlike Mariah's), and appear to be well-adjusted kids. The IB program was new when Mariah was coming through, and she didn't want to be a guinea pig--but Nick has friends with older siblings there, and for all the problems the whole school-within-a-school model has, that's probably what we'll aim for.

What saddens me a bit is that a nice group of kids will be splitting up over the next few years. Some are already planning to head off to the single-sex schools next year. Others will start home-schooling, or go private, or choose one of the several different public schools. I know there's a great advantage to breaking up cliques and moving into new environments, but I'm wondering if age 10-12 is the best time to do that.

I have no answers, just questions. And worries. But since I have this conversation about once a week in various face-to-face venues, I'm also feeling a bit blase about it. It will work out, somehow. And I don't think the New York Times is going to make a bit of difference.


Becca said...

This is such a huge issue. Here there's one public middle school in town--all the elementaries feed into it. Some kids must split off to private at that point, but no one in our gang. In fact, we know kids who have switched in from both private and homeschooling. I think the way it works is you are terrified in fourth (you being parents), then in fifth you know lots of kids who go (it starts in sixth), and they all have a fine time, and you get reassured. At least, that's where we are now. You also start collecting information: take Latin because the teachers are great and then you can switch to Spanish or French in high school; do band; etc.

But that's our specifics...policy-wise, the whole thing is such a problem, especially in urban schools where the middle school structure pulls kids from the familiarity of elementary school and the responsibility for younger kids, and leaves them marooned, looking up to older kids, who may not be going in such good directions. I'm a huge fan of K-8, myself.

Caroline said...

Ah, you know I'm thinking about this, too! There are 2 public K-8s in our part of town (both are considered "alternative"), the other publics are K-5, after which we'd have 4 huge, terrifying middle schools to choose from. I'd really prefer Ben to go to a K-8; middle school seems the worst possible time to spend with only other middle schoolers.