Middle Level in the West

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Last week I was in Tucson for a conference and family vacation. While there, I decided to contact Carol Kendrick, the president of the Arizona Middle Level Association to find out what is happening with middle level in that state. Carol and I spent about an hour discussing a wide range of topics including the effects of federal and state mandates on curriculum and instructional practices, school structure, leadership, school decision-making, and 21st century skills. I found that the middle level educators in Arizona are facing many of the same challenges (and opportunities) as we are in Maine.

Like Maine, Arizona has been faced with declining enrollments and budgets. In Carol’s school,  Desert Shadows Middle School,  this has resulted in each teacher seeing 200 students! It has also resulted in the reduction of team planning time. In Carol’s school, the teams meet once a week, which requires very focused agendas and teamwork.

The requirements for teacher certification (they must be “appropriately certified”) have also created challenges to integrated curriculum as teachers must have at least 24 credit hours in order to instruct in any content area. Another mandate that has impacted graduation rates is the requirement for ELL students to participate in 4 hours of ELL instruction each day, until they test out of the program. This does not leave these students enough time to gain the knowledge and skills they need in order to meet the requirements in other content areas. As a result, many ELL students drop out.

Despite these (and other) challenges, middle level practices DO become embedded in the schools. Like Maine, Arizona is a very independent minded state. Each district determines how they will configure their schools to meet the needs of their students. Every school is also required to have a school council made up of faculty, students, and parents. The council is charged with setting the direction for the school. Carol works with her school council to develop a common language regarding best practice. For example, her school council spent a year reading and discussing Daniel Pink’s book A Whole New Mind and the possible implications for practice in her school. This process may be time intensive, but pays off when the school sets a common goal and plan.

Another way Carol ensures that middle level philosophy lives on is through the hiring process and beyond. Carol makes sure that the individuals she brings into her school (about 1/3 of her teaching staff over the past year or so) are committed to middle level practices. She then follows up with them in individual meetings each week! To keep middle level practices fresh for all of her staff, Carol publishes a weekly newsletter highlighting core middle level practices.

As the president of the Arizona Middle Level Association, Carol expressed concern with how to continue to engage the teachers entering middle schools in ongoing dialogue and professional growth related to best practice. She indicated that they are exploring ways that are more in tune with the younger generation of middle level teachers, using technology to reach out and connect around best practices.

I really enjoyed connecting with Carol and learning about what is happening in her school and with middle schools in Arizona. I wonder if we could figure out how to connect more intentionally with other states to keep middle level fresh and alive? To that end, I have started to visit all of the middle level state association websites to learn more about how other states are engaging teachers, parents and legislature in their work… but that is another post!

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