In a conference room of middle school principals and teachers, eighth grader Johnny Yang ticked off ways that middle school is different from elementary school: There isn’t a line leader to walk the class through the hall. Kids who are ready for harder classes can take them. Students have electives and clubs. “They really give you a lot more independence,” Yang said. “It’s a big step from elementary school, where everything is locked into place. Middle school is more free-flowing.”
Yang attends Hunter’s Creek Middle School in Florida’s Orange County Public Schools. He spoke on a panel at the November 2022 Association for Middle Level Education (AMLE) Conference in Orlando. Hosted by Chiefs for Change, a bipartisan network of school superintendents and state education leaders, the session highlighted points from the network’s latest report: Middle School Strategy: Leveraging the Science of Learning and Development to Inform Education in Middle School. The report, the latest in a library of resources produced by Chiefs for Change, outlines research on the developmental needs of early adolescents and challenges they face. It provides recommendations on how districts can better support students by considering the intellectual, social-emotional, behavioral, and physical changes that occur in the middle grades.
“In Orange County Public Schools, we recognize that the academic support is just as important as the social-emotional support, especially at the middle school level, where [students] are beginning to find their identity,” said panelist Maria Vazquez, the superintendent in Orange County and a member of Chiefs for Change. “They’re trying to fit in, lots of pressures begin to set in. And so, we offer academic courses at various levels, including accelerated courses that are accepted for high school credit. We try to offer a variety of clubs and opportunities for them to be engaged, but we also have put in a much stronger social-emotional support system.”
Studies show that early adolescence is one of the most rapid phases of human development, second only to brain development during the first five years of a child’s life. That rapid change can influence young people in a variety of ways, and behavioral health conditions such as anxiety or depression often begin to develop during the middle school years.
“Our strategic plan specifically addresses mental health and students’ wellbeing as one of our objectives,” Vazquez explained. “It is very important to our board, to Orange County Public Schools, that we educate the whole child. Part of that includes tools to measure how you are meeting your goals, so we provide a survey every year, and these last two years we used a platform specifically looking at students’ belonging and connectedness.”
Results from the district’s annual survey, facilitated by Panorama Education, show that coming out of the pandemic, students’ sense of belonging dropped — especially for middle school students. Less than 40 percent of students in grades 6–8 said they feel like they belong. “We are trying to figure out what happened,” Vazquez noted. “We have to do a better job of making kids feel like they are connected.”
The district is talking with students to understand how they define belonging and will use their responses to design related supports that are aligned to the strategic plan. Vazquez also described the important role that families can play in helping children in middle school and said the district is using federal Covid relief aid to fund mental health training for all staff and to hire more counselors and social workers.
Donald Fennoy, a chief in residence at Chiefs for Change and the former superintendent of The School District of Palm Beach County, moderated the AMLE session. “Typically, most of our struggles were in middle school,” he told the audience. “So there were a lot of resources and effort to try and improve those practices.”
Leaders in Hamilton County Schools in Chattanooga, Tennessee, are also intensely focused on enhancing supports for middle school kids. Although Hamilton County has been one of the fastest-improving school systems in the state, district leaders found the gains students were making in elementary and high school were not occurring in middle school.
K-12 systems often concentrate on ensuring elementary students can read on grade level and that high school students are on track to graduate. Amid these priorities, middle schoolers can sometimes be overlooked.
Hamilton County engaged Chiefs for Change and its partners to examine existing programs and design approaches grounded in research and best practices to promote academic achievement and overall wellbeing. The district developed actionable strategic priorities and launched an innovation grant competition to spur ideas for building stronger middle school programs throughout the district.
“The technical assistance was huge,” Hamilton County Schools Superintendent Justin Robertson said during the AMLE session. “By partnering with Chiefs for Change — they have a ton of expertise — we developed protocols for this grant. What we really wanted it to do was to provide an accelerant for work that middle schools were already doing.”
Each grant proposal had to reflect input from students, build on existing efforts, and present a sustainable plan for the long term. Awards include a $200,000 grant to a 6–12 creative arts school. The school will use the money to complement its performing arts programming with opportunities to engage other groups of students in the areas of film and theater production, script writing, and back-stage technical support. Another grant will allow a different middle school to enhance its programming related to science, technology, engineering, and math, which are emphasized at the high school that many of the middle school’s students will attend.
Superintendent Robertson stressed that programs for student learning go hand-in-hand with efforts to foster deeper connections among students and their peers, students and staff, and students and the community. Each middle school in his district is pursuing one or two strategies to improve those connections.
“We’re trying to hear from kids about what it means to them to feel valued and a sense of belonging,” Robertson explained, adding that a sense of belonging is key to school safety. He pointed to an October 24 school shooting in St. Louis that killed two people and injured several others. “Did you see the note that was left in the car?,” Robertson asked the audience before quoting news reports. “The kid said: ‘I never had any friends. I never had a girlfriend. I don’t have a social life.’ The last line was: ‘Perfect storm.’ You want to talk about school safety? Sense of belonging is the first step toward school safety. That is where you start.”