Apodaca: Middle schools continue to evolve

Parents of elementary school students bound for Corona del Mar and Costa Mesa high schools are undoubtedly pleased that plans are finally underway to create separate middle-school "enclaves" on both campuses.

The lack of any separation between middle- and high-school students at both of these grades 7-12 campuses has long been a cause for worry in the community.

I've seen the horrified looks on the faces of some parents as they've picked up their prepubescent 12-year-olds at school parking lots swarming with high-schoolers. I've watched them grimace at the sight of screeching tires, and giant 17-year-olds shouting profanities and making out in full view of the middle-school kids.

I've been one of those parents.

The enclaves are the district's long-sought answer to those parental concerns. Though they won't result in separate campuses — the district has for years maintained that there aren't enough students to justify freestanding middle schools in the CdM and Costa Mesa zones — the construction projects will provide more distinct spaces on both campuses for most core middle-school classes, lockers, break areas and some support services.

The projects, which also include new theaters for both schools, are being funded through Measure F, the $282-million bond approved by Newport-Mesa Unified School District voters in 2005. If all goes as planned, construction will begin this summer.

But it would be a mistake to think that a bricks-and-mortar solution alone will be sufficient to grapple with the complex issues involved in teaching middle-school students.

Indeed, the reconfiguration of both campuses provides an opportunity that shouldn't be missed to reconsider the way we educate this important age group.

First, a little history: Throughout much of the 19th century, schools in the United States were typically divided into high schools and primary schools that taught through the eighth grade. In the late 1800s, Harvard President Charles Eliot proposed creating separate schools for the few years before high school. The idea was to mimic the high school experience as a means to keep students engaged, and thus deflate the huge dropout rate after grade 8.

The concept took hold, and by the middle of the 20th century, most kids attended some form of "junior" high school. But by the 1960s, educators like William Alexander — known as the "father of American middle schools" — began advocating for another change. Rather than creating just smaller versions of high schools for students in the middle years, they argued, we should address this age group's unique needs with concepts and curricula designed specifically for them.

Nonetheless, middle schools over the last several decades have evolved in fits and starts into a disorganized jumble of grade levels and teaching styles. The reasons for this are many: a shortage in funding, an absence of political will, a lack of research and a dearth in training. Some reform advocates maintain that these factors have contributed to middle schools becoming the weakest link in our education system.

"Whether [middle-school students] can hang out by themselves is not addressing the education issue," said Marsha Robinson, a middle-grades specialist at the California Department of Education. "What this age needs is differentiated instruction. "

Middle-year students are different. That is evident to anyone who has ever set foot inside a middle-school classroom, where early adolescence is in full bloom.

Boys are bundles of twitching, cannot-sit-still awkwardness. Girls, who mature more rapidly at this stage, are exploring the wonders of eyeliner and attitude while riding a rollercoaster of emotional vicissitude.

Cognitive changes are equally dramatic in the not-quite-ready-for-high-school crowd. This is the stage at which the area of the brain that governs self-control, and judgment, begins a march toward adulthood, a process that encompasses the teen years through the early 20s.

In part because young teens are just at the start of this transformation, reform advocates argue that it's crucial for middle schools to have built-in adaptability to accommodate the wide range of maturation levels. Flexible scheduling, interdisciplinary team teaching, independent projects and course offerings that include arts, culture and vocational studies are considered vital.

Without such a blueprint, many experts say, kids run the risk of becoming lost in a one-size-fits-all system, which in turn sets them up to be disengaged in high school.

Which brings us back to the changes about to take place on the CdM and Costa Mesa campuses. While they represent a step forward, the success of the middle-school enclaves will rest on the one factor by which education lives or dies: the quality of teaching.

When I asked CdM Middle School Principal Guy Olguin about this issue, he assured me that his teachers receive extensive training and development "to stay cutting edge."

What's more, he said, the enclave will include modern tools, such as interactive whiteboards "to infuse technology into teaching." A more defined middle-school area will also allow for a sharper focus on projects and activities designed for this age group, he said. Meanwhile, middle-school students will still have access to certain high-school classes when appropriate.

Jim LaMond, the district's director of facilities development, planning and design, has shepherded the enclave project over the past several years.

Now that the projects are close to becoming a reality, he said, "It's kind of an exciting time."

There will be a degree of upheaval on both campuses as the construction continues over the next couple of years.

But, LaMond said, once the enclaves are completed, "I think educational things will evolve out of that."

Let's make sure he's right.

PATRICE APODACA is a Newport-Mesa public school parent and former Los Angeles Times staff writer. She is also a regular contributor to Orange Coast magazine. She lives in Newport Beach.

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