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As Many Districts Move Away From Middle School, Here's Why Cambridge Is Bringing It Back

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The front entrance of the Putnam Avenue Upper School, which shares a campus but is separate from the Martin Luther King Jr. School in Cambridge. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
The front entrance of the Putnam Avenue Upper School, which shares a campus but is separate from the Martin Luther King Jr. School in Cambridge. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
This article is more than 6 years old.

If you are or have ever been the parent of a preteen, this conversation between Bethany Versoy of Cambridge and her 13-year-old son, Ben, might sound familiar.

Mom: "Wanna go for a bike ride?"

Son: "No, too cold."

Mom: "How about lunch?"

Son: "No. I just wanna watch TV. And read."

Mom: "For school? I have a book I’m reading too. We could read together?"

Son: "No thank you."

Mom: "No thank you? Ha ha!”

It’s a delicate time. Ben Versoy is coming into his own, going through puberty — and figuring out where he fits in. He’s an eighth grader at Cambridge's Putnam Avenue Upper School.

That means he's part of a recent shift in Cambridge, one that makes the city an outlier in how it handles the grades between elementary and high school.

Over the years, many districts throughout the country have switched from having separate middle schools or junior highs to using a K-8 model. They argue that it enhances academic performance by preventing the switch to a new school in sixth or seventh grade. That's already a disruptive time of life, with the hormonal storms of puberty and their attendant social and emotional complications.

Cambridge Public Schools, however, recently returned to the old middle-school model — with a twist. The district says it’s better for students.

Bethany Versoy says her son's school looks a lot like the one she went to when she was 13. But, she says, it feels, a lot different. And she likes what Cambridge is doing.

"What I’m finding that Cambridge is doing that I like — it almost sounds trite, but they’re really working to educate the whole child," Versoy says. "This is a tough age, and you’re going from being a little kid to the cusp of being an adult."

Back To Middle School, After Decades Of K-8

Four years ago, Cambridge schools shifted from their decades-old model, in which schools ran from kindergarten through eighth grade.

The city now has four schools made up entirely of sixth, seventh and eighth graders.

It's a model that gained popularity in the 1950s. And while there are quite a few districts in the state that still teach under this model, by today's standards it's pretty outdated.

In the last 20 years many schools throughout the country have decided that a K-8 structure provides the best academic outcomes for sixth, seventh and eighth graders.

They’re following the research of academics like David Hough, dean of the College of Education at Missouri State University. Back in 1991, while researching the academic outcomes of seventh graders, Hough discovered something.

"I found that the seventh graders performed better in a school that was configured kindergarten through grade eight," says Hough, "and so I labeled those schools 'elemiddles.' "

Hough says, academically, sixth and seventh graders perform better in school when they aren’t the new kids on the block.

And a recently published study out of Syracuse University shows that sixth graders often report being bullied and feeling all around unsafe when they are the “bottom dogs."

That's a fear 13-year-old Ben Vernoy felt going from elementary school into sixth grade.

"It was kind of scary because I knew kids from my school," he says, "but I wasn’t sure if the other people from the other schools would accept me."

Why Cambridge Made The Switch

Cambridge Deputy Superintendent Carolyn Turk has heard all of this before. But for Cambridge, she says, there was a practical problem: At the elementary level, all of the classes were full. Then, by sixth grade, the population would often dip substantially — sometimes with only a handful of kids in a class.

"It’s really hard to think about something bigger, whether it was a debate team, a soccer team, whether you’re talking about the arts," Turk says, "when you’re talking about such small numbers."

So Cambridge decided on a new structure: two or three elementary schools that feed into one middle school. (There's still one K-8, the Spanish-immersion Amigos School.) This way, students get to go to school with kids they already know, while also meeting new students.

Putnam Avenue Upper School is a bright and shiny example of the district’s vision.

The building is only a year old. The doors are painted vibrant colors like red and blue. There’s a science lab on every floor. And, just as in high school, the students have a choice of learning a foreign language or participating in drama, choir, art and intramural sports.

As Principal Mirko Chardin walks down the hallway, he points down a long corridor that connects to the Martin Luther King Jr. elementary school.

Chardin says sixth graders are paired as mentors with younger kids. It helps lessen the feeling of being an underdog. He says he's also chosen staff who have the expertise of working with 11-to-14-year-olds.

"It just helps enrich the experience," Chardin says. "These kids are learning who they are and how they express themselves."

Academically, Cambridge’s middle school test scores so far show no measurable shift in improvement. The district says it will need more than three years to measure progress.

But out-of-school suspensions districtwide have gone down from 7 percent in 2010 to just over 2 percent in the last year. The district believes the middle school configuration plays a big role in this decrease.

Today, Ben Versoy is part of the second eighth-grade class that's set to graduate under this new middle school model.

He’s already thinking about high school.

"I’m kind of scared, but not really," he says, "because I know what to expect."

Moving to middle school has given him the right experience he needs for his next jump: freshman year in high school.

This article was originally published on October 14, 2016.

This segment aired on October 14, 2016.

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