At Last There Is a Move On to Help the 'Forgotten Middle' of Students

Times Staff Writer

At the top end of the educational spectrum, there are the gifted students. They are the estimated 10% of youngsters in most school systems who tend to excel at just about everything they do. School is their natural habitat.

And there are special programs and an array of scholarships to help them reach their highest potentials.

At the opposite end, there are the low achievers. They are the kids with the physical, mental or emotional handicaps that limit what they can do in school.

And there are special programs, required by law and specially funded, to help them deal with their limitations.

'Forgotten Middle'

Now, says McKinley Nash, superintendent of the Centinela Valley Union High School District, let's hear it for the "forgotten middle."

That's the 60% to 70% of the student population, lumped between the high and low achievers, that rarely sees a special program put together just for them, he says.

So let's talk, he says, about the low-maintenance, average kids who follow the well-trodden paths through the school system. They are expected to stay out of trouble, pick up some useful knowledge from basic courses geared to their average abilities and then march on to whatever awaits them in the outside world.

But that outside world has changed, Nash says, and society can no longer afford to neglect the schooling of its great majority--not if it wants to turn out workers and citizens who can compete successfully in a complex high-tech culture.

"The growing need is for a much better-educated, more enlightened population," he said. "To achieve that goal, we have to start with the assumption that kids in the middle are capable of much more than we are expecting of them now."

District's Program

Nash, who joined the Centinela Valley district five years ago, is not one to state a problem without a plan to solve it.

His plan, launched this year in the 6,000-student district, is summarized in its title: Assessment, Planning, Programming and Intervention, or APPI--an acronym that peppers conversations on the subject with district officials, parents and students.

APPI means an early search in the system's feeder schools for average students with more-than-average potential, getting their parents involved, writing contracts on what everybody is supposed to do, starting the willing and able kids on college-preparatory tracks and then standing by with counselors to help if a student starts to falter.

"Average is a relative term," Nash said. "It is often applied in school systems to students who have never been challenged to reach for higher goals, to stretch for their maximum potential."

However, to get the middle-group kids to stretch, Nash says, schools must provide a carefully structured program that guides them over every step of what is, for most, an unfamiliar path of high expectations.

Part of Statewide Movement

The middle group, in short, needs a special program, too.

Nash's program, an outgrowth of a project that he devised for an Illinois school where he served as principal in the early 1970s, is in line with statewide efforts in recent years to raise the academic performance of all of California's public school children.

Those efforts, led by state schools Supt. Bill Honig, were institutionalized by the 1983 School Reform Act, which added math and science courses to the standard curriculum and provided incentives to upgrade teaching and counseling skills.

Most districts are still preoccupied with raising the academic curve for all their students, but a few, including the South Bay Union and Palos Verdes Peninsula school districts, have joined Centinela Valley in trying to do something special for their middle groups.

The size and special needs of the middle group in any district depend on a variety of social and economic factors, Nash says.

He says the affluent Peninsula and Beverly Hills districts, for example, have smaller middle groups and more higher achievers, while predominantly minority schools nationwide tend to rank lower overall in test scores and in the size of their middle groups.

Centinela Valley, which has a minority population of 72%, generally fits the national profile, Nash says, pointing out that language and cultural differences add to the difficulties that average students must overcome to achieve higher academic levels.

District test scores have been improving over the last four years, but are still below county and state averages. Only 20% of Centinela Valley's seniors go on to a community college or university, with less than 3% immediately entering four-year institutions, Nash says.

By comparison, the Peninsula and Beverly Hills districts send more than 90% of their graduates to college. About 65% of Peninsula seniors go straight to universities.

"What we have is a district that is rich in people and diversity," Nash said. "But we are badly under-represented in universities and colleges and in the higher level careers out there in the workplace."

College-Prep Classes

One measurable result of the project so far, Nash says, is a 10% increase in the number of ninth-grade students taking college-preparatory courses. About 43% of incoming freshmen at the district's two comprehensive schools, Leuzinger and Hawthorne High, are enrolled in the program.

The program began early this year when Centinela Valley teachers and counselors visited intermediate campuses in the district's four elementary feeder systems--Hawthorne, Lawndale, Lennox and Wiseburn.

Through standard tests, the students' grade records and classroom teacher recommendations, the district concluded that 45% of the eighth-graders had college potential.

A key to the assessments, said Nancy Guenther, who supervises the program for the district, is the search for any anomalies that might be hiding untapped talents.

For example, she said, a child may have a poor overall grade record and still have talents and interests in at least one field that could be developed. An average IQ also is not necessarily cause for disqualification, she said, since success in school and in life is often determined more by motivation and attitude than by native intelligence.

To avoid excluding anyone who might be missed in the search, the district leaves the ultimate decision on entering the program to each student and his parents, no matter where the child falls in the assessment phase.

"We won't deny any child a chance to try," Nash said. "We say to all of them, 'You can get in the group, but you must be willing to pay the price.' And the parents must be willing to make the investment with us."

Entry to the program is sealed with a three-way contract. Students pledge to do their best, parents promise to provide encouragement and a quiet place to study, and the schools agree to provide a support system and a curriculum that can carry the student on to college.

After a series of meetings and get-acquainted social sessions, the students take a six-week summer session on a high school campus.

"We use that time to upgrade their language and math skills and help them feel at home on their new campus," said Amy Fujihara, assistant principal at Hawthorne High who is charge of the program there.

Track for Students

"We tell the kids that they are special, and it's OK for them to plan on a higher education, because we have a college-prep track for them too," Fujihara said. College-prep tracks are generally one level below honors courses.

Fujihara's counterpart at Leuzinger High, Sonja Davis, said that after-school tutoring during the academic year helps to close any gaps between the abilities and the aspirations of students in the program.

She said group tutoring is offered in library sessions, or the student can get individual help from teachers, El Camino College students who visit the campus, or higher-achieving peers.

"A well-motivated child is eager to accept the extra help needed to reach a goal," Davis said. "In other cases, we may build a tutoring schedule into the child's study program."

A teacher on each campus is designated an intervenor, who steps in if classroom teachers or test scores indicate that a student is falling behind. Private counseling sessions with the student and parents may uncover a personal or family problem, or a pep talk may be enough to get the youngster back on the track.

Decision on Reassignment

If intervention does not work, a joint decision may be made to reassign the student to a lower level--with the assurance that the door will be open whenever the youngster is ready to try again.

"We encourage the APPI kids to fly as high as they can," said Jean Lukas, a project coordinator. "But at the same time, we don't want them to crash and walk away from the experience with a feeling of failure."

To maintain communication with parents and help spot early signs of problems, the district issues written progress evaluations on its students every five weeks, half the normal period for standard report cards.

Parent JoAnne Callahan, who has a son in the program, said frequent reports and personal contacts from counselors make a big difference. "Instead of grasping at straws, we can work together to solve problems," she said.

Student Jenny Choe said the program "makes me want to work harder to keep up with the other kids. And the personal attention gives me the courage to want something better for myself."

'Desire to Succeed'

Her teacher in college-prep English, Ramiro De La Rocha, said: "We know some of these kids have come from a lower academic track, and they have to try harder to keep up. Their desire to succeed just naturally inspires the teacher to want to go the extra mile with them."

Project officials say very few students have dropped out--fewer than a half-dozen out of about 650 on both campuses.

Nash said tending to the forgotten middle requires some shifting of priorities and resources. Most of the extra costs, such as extra teacher and counseling time, are covered by discretionary funding set up in the 1983 school bill, he said.

"Most of all, it takes a strong commitment from the institution, the faculty and the staff," he said. "You've got to believe in your middle group and want something better for them."

Two other South Bay districts with high schools have started their own versions of programs to help average students. The South Bay Union district, which operates the Redondo Union and Mira Costa campuses, is in the second year of a program that "zeroes in on the middle group that Dr. Nash is talking about," said Redondo Union Principal Gerald Davis.

Instant Labeling

"We found that under the old system our students were being instantly labeled as college-bound or not college-bound," Davis said.

To change that, he said, the district opened up its honors and college-prep courses to more students, leaving a smaller number of unwilling or unable youngsters on a basic curriculum track.

At the same time, the district set up "guaranteed guidance" teams to help shepherd the former middle students to higher levels of achievement.

"We're seeing good results," Davis said. "Attitudes and expectations have been raised, and there has been a substantial increase in the number of kids taking pre-college exams."

In the Peninsula district, lower-level math courses were added to the curriculum four years ago to help prepare more middle achievers for college careers, Supt. Jack Price said. Although the effort has not been duplicated in other subject areas yet, he said, "it has given us a start on meeting the special needs of the middle group."

Torrance Unified still is concentrating on raising the academic achievements of its students generally and has no special programs for average students, curriculum director Gail Wickstrom said.

In the small El Segundo Unified system, the emphasis in recent years has been on establishing honors and advanced-placement courses--programs that the district did not have until three years ago, Supt. Richard Bertain said.

"Many of us tend to think that the average kid can get along fine without any special help," Bertain said. "Dr. Nash's contribution should help correct that perception."

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