Q&A; : Middle-School Solution to Turbulent Age Group

TIMES STAFF WRITER

John Liechty, director of middle schools for the Los Angeles Unified School District.

Claim to fame: An evangelist for school reforms pegged to the needs of children in early adolescence, and a popular speaker at Westside schools, where he reassures dismayed parents that the problems of young teens are normal--and temporary. He is the main architect of a reconfiguration of Los Angeles schools that will eliminate traditional junior high schools (grades seven-nine) and replace them with middle schools containing grades six, seven and eight.

Background: A high school dropout, he subsequently returned to school and now boasts 25 years' experience as a teacher, principal and father of four--three of whom attended public schools. He lives in Pacific Palisades.

Interviewer: Times staff writer Lois Timnick.

Q: Exactly what age do you focus on and why is this period so difficult for many children--and their parents?

A: I'm concerned with 10-to-15-year-olds. It's easy to forget that the great little guy or girl who was well-behaved, polite, nice, someone we could talk to and who listened to normal music is the same child at age 13 or 14 but is just going through a different phase of development. He's almost, but not exactly, an adolescent.

Over the last 100 years we have recognized that this age group is unique in its characteristics and needs. It's why we created the junior high school at the turn of the century. But it has become merely a simplified version of senior high, which was designed for young people between ages 15 and 20.

I am trying to get parents, the community and educators to recognize one critical fact: That every single 10-to-15-year-old is at risk--regardless of the language they speak, their socioeconomical status, their ethnicity, their academic standing--because during that five-year period they are going to make decisions that will impact the quality of the rest of their lives, education being one of the major issues. The belief system they develop now about themselves and their potential is difficult, if not impossible, to change later.

The changes in their bodies are obvious, but they also go through more emotional, social, psychological and personal changes now than any other time in their lives, except for the first year of infancy. I sometimes call them "hormones with legs." They are self-centered, questioning, awkward, easily embarrassed and humiliated. Not to mention sullen and withdrawn. And unpredictable: that same little guy who comes running to throw his arms around you is also capable of blowing your head off and not giving it 30 seconds' thought, because of where he is developmentally.

Q: Why is it important to reconfigure the schools so that the traditional junior high of seventh-through-ninth grade becomes a middle school with the sixth, seventh and eighth grades together?

A: There is a peak to the unpredictability and the bizarreness curve of early adolescence that comes at about 14 or 15--about the ninth grade.

Moving ninth-graders up means you no longer have a group at the peak of their bizarreness serving as models for the seventh and eighth graders, and that bizarreness itself gets muted once they're in the shadow of high school upperclassmen.

Also, it's clear to everybody that, developmentally speaking, a ninth-grader has much more in common with a 12th-grader than with a seventh-grader, while a sixth-grader has more in common with an eighth-grader than with a third-grader.

And a six-through-eight grouping is more flexible. Ninth grade is the first year of the high school curriculum. I would be willing to give up both hands if I'm wrong, but I guarantee that our dropout rate would fall by a minimum of 10% if we put every ninth grader in a four-year comprehensive high school. You can offer a more comprehensive academic program in a four-year high school.

Q: Are the psychological and social changes that kids encounter coming earlier now because everything is so accelerated?

A: Partly. We're seeing some behaviors at a much earlier age than, say, even 20 years ago. A lot of that has to do with the informational society that we exist in. The media is extremely influential to this group, and advertisers know that kids spend billions. Part of that consumption is identity--it's why, when my daughter asks for tennis shoes, she's not asking for sneakers, she wants a $150 pair of Reebok Pump-Ups and she believes that she has to have them in order to fit in. And if she doesn't get them she is going to make me feel like garbage.

Also, a larger percentage of our parents today are working, and we have a growing number of single-parent families, all of them struggling to meet their children's "needs." We've got kids across this district who may be classified as poverty level, but they are wearing $100 tennis shoes, $200 sweat suits. At its most extreme, the need to belong leads some to steal what their parents can't afford.

Kids are spending more time alone, more time with friends, and taking on greater responsibility. Not the kind of responsibility they had on the farm 50 years ago--they may not lift a finger to help at home. I mean responsibility for picking and choosing what's right and what's wrong.

There was a time when it was OK for junior highs to provide less direction, less support, less guidance and less sensitivity, because the family structure was there to take care of that. No more. Now, at their most vulnerable, we send them off to this thing called junior high school, which doesn't provide them a sense of connectedness, a sense of belonging, even a sense of identity. What it does provide is a sense of anonymity. And few adults consciously seek out to work with the early adolescent.

Q: Well, they're so obnoxious.

A: That's right. Individually they've got the greatest potential in the world, but put them in a group for an hour and they can rip holes. They're testing everybody. If, for example, I said that for a week we're going to have a new tardy policy that calls for a machine gun on the top of the building and when the tardy bell rings we're going to strafe, I guarantee you that even if I gave six months' advance notice I would lose three or four hundred kids on the first day of tardy. Because every junior high school age youngster needs to test whether you really mean what you say.

Q: How can a parent get through all this? You do your best to instill solid values and you've got good rapport with your kids--then suddenly one day there's a stranger in the house.

A: Know that things will change. Strive to reach a balance that will allow them the greatest opportunity to grow, seek independence and assume responsibility, but at the same time not simply give it away. Most 13-year-olds will spend, and wish to spend, a disproportionate amount of time with their friends. But the concept of family still has to be there, even when they seem to be fighting it.

If it's any consolation, each of my four children appeared a little more brain-dead than the last at this age. Being there for our children is important, but don't fall into the trap of giving them what they want. It's easier for me to do the dishes than to ask my daughters to do them, for example, but they need to have responsibilities and consequences for not fulfilling them.

And forget family vacations. You can have a vacation and you can have a family, but you can't have a family vacation.

Q: What leverage do you have with, say, a 14-year-old who defies his parents and stays out all night with his friends?

A: When it's reached that point, when the group he or she wants to belong to has taken on the role of mom and dad, you need to quit being embarrassed about asking for help.

When the friends that make a 14-year-old feel important stay out all night, he's going to be out all night too. And he'll take any punishment in the world from Mom and Dad.

Q: You're advising psychotherapy?

A: Outside counseling, social agencies. It's hard, it's embarrassing to go to your neighbor or even friends, but tell me where there is a support group for parents. It's extremely helpful (to talk with other parents), because sometimes we think we're alone and we carry around a lot of guilt when things go wrong. I've been there: One of my daughters went through very serious anorexia and almost died. We had to go through some counseling, though I didn't like it.

Parents always want to think that whatever our children do negatively, we're responsible. I think that if you're there for your children, if you're providing direction and guidance, yes you're going to argue, yes you're going to fight, yes they're going to defy you at times, but you've got to be there. You've got to use whatever you need to use short of a 2-by-4, and if you've got to pick them up and go get counseling, then you've got to swallow your pride and go do that.

Q: What can the school do to help kids through this phase? What are you trying to accomplish through the new middle school reforms?

A: We should be forming a partnership between parents and the middle school, because if you've got a 13-year-old with six or seven people monitoring, directing, supervising, supporting and being sensitive to him, that's a whole lot easier than just Mom or Dad, who are working.

School counselors are sometimes easier for kids to talk with than parents. I'll just throw one thing at you--sexual identity. This is when it happens. It's nice to assume that everybody's (headed toward heterosexuality). But that may not be. If you are a 12-year-old and you've got feelings inside that aren't what you should be having and you've got no place to go, how do you deal with it?

The school reform effort is as much about a belief in the potential of the 10-to-15-year-old as it is about any particular concept or program. It starts by recognizing the characteristics of this age, and creating a more personal approach to education. We have to get people to recognize that we're going to achieve more academically and personally if we can create a sense of identity, belonging, connectedness, for all these kids, not anonymity. They are all able learners, regardless of where they are on the academic continuum, but if you don't believe that, then you're not going to create an environment in which learning becomes a sense of fun, a sense of excitement.

Q: So how do you translate this into specific programs?

A: By a whole different approach, one that does not focus on academics alone at the expense of the adolescent soul.

Q: The adolescent soul?

A: The adolescent soul is that spark, it's that sense of dignity, it's that sense of self-worth. You're not going to get to the gray cells unless you take care of the heart.

You're not doing to create a better math student by putting a youngster in remedial math, you're going to create a remedial math student. You're not going to create a better athlete by sitting him on the bench, you're going to create a substitute, a spectator. Middle school is about participation.

And connecting. When you've got youngsters who aren't connecting in school with academics, band, drill team, clubs, they are going to connect with gangs, punk rockers, bikers, satanists, whoever--because it is survival to connect.

Gangs are stronger than ever because they offer something that we as institutions and bureaucracies can't offer: They accept you for what you are, they don't care how smart or athletic or popular you are. You don't have to be anything but willing to accept the values of the gang, which is easy at 10 or 11, because you're accepted, you're protected.

But kids respond to changing environments. When I was principal at Berendo Junior High (in Koreatown), I saw these little gangsters transformed into preppies within six weeks when they were sent (because of overcrowding) to Millikan in the Valley and connected with a different group.

We need to start valuing all kinds of learning. There are tremendous artisans who are not great academicians. And why should one's value at 12 years old depend on test scores or grade point average?

Q: How do you do that in the middle school setting?

A: We're going to tear down walls of isolation by creating teams of teachers to work with the same group of kids so they all get to know each other. That creates a sense of smallness and removes anonymity, and allows teachers to confer with each other about the kids, not merely content.

Content is not our problem at junior high school. Our problem is delivering the content during the hormonal attacks that take place every 30 seconds.

We think it will take about five years to implement all the reforms. We're moving to try to address questions about physical development, personal relationships, emotions and the like with an adviser-advisee program in which each member of the school staff takes on a small group for all three years as sort of a mentor, pal, friend, who can provide direction and run interference when there are problems.

Q: Has any school system been trying this middle school approach long enough for measureable results? How do we know it's not just an educational fad?

A: Middle schools have been around since the turn of the century--mostly in higher socioeconomic communities. So of course they look better academically because you're dealing with a different group of kids.

But the concept of middle schools in an urban setting is relatively new, and Los Angeles is really on the cutting edge. I think we will have to wait three or four years to see what happens academically.

Right now, we've got the most suspensions, the most expulsions, the most transfers (of troublemakers), the highest rate of violence, the highest rate of hostility and the greatest teacher turnover at the junior high level. Our kids are not achieving academic or personal success.

But preliminary data are encouraging. We looked at 10 schools--like the Lincoln Middle School in Santa Monica--that have implemented some of the critical concepts of middle school reform: team teaching, planning time for teachers, special interest classes, advisory programs. We found that suspensions, expulsions and transfers dropped by over 50% in some, while attendance in every one of them went up. So we think we're onto something.

Q: For Westside parents who are ambivalent about private vs. public schools, this effort could be public education's last gasp. If it fails, they are out of the system.

A: Right. You child's education shouldn't be a crap shoot. If we aren't doing what we should be doing, you should be out. It's a terrible thing to say because I love public education and I worry greatly about it because I know what is going to happen down the road. There are too many advocates out there for choice (government payments parents can use at schools of their choice), which for some people is a way of exclusion. If it ever hits, and I think it will, you're going to see a bunch of storefront schools go up because of the dollars involved.

Unless we are able in this decade to really restructure and reformat our failing school system, you'll see public education go by the wayside.

Q: You mean it will be there, but only as a last resort for people with no alternatives?

A: Yeah. So we have an awesome responsibility not only to cheerlead for change, but to get people involved and make it happen.

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