THE BLOG

In a City Desperate for Good Middle Schools, One May Be Hiding in Plain Sight

04/01/2015 10:51 am ET | Updated Jun 01, 2015

Like a lot of cities, Washington, D.C., frets about its middle schools -- or lack thereof.

Just over a year ago, then-Councilwoman Muriel Bowser introduced a resolution calling on the city to improve its middle schools or risk continuing to lose its schoolchildren to the suburbs, private schools, or the rapidly growing charter sector.

Earlier this year, in her inauguration speech as D.C.'s newest mayor, she reiterated the point: "If you stay united with me," she promised, "we'll transform our middle schools."

Bowser is right to place the spotlight on her city's middle schools. In a 2014 poll by the Washington Post, only 24 percent of city residents said they would choose to send their child to one. And after the 2011-12 school year, the system's enrollment rate from fifth grade to sixth grade -- the city's usual transition point from elementary to middle school -- plummeted by 24 percent.

According to Mike Muir, the president of the Association of Middle Level Education, D.C.'s "middle school problem" is not only happening in D.C. "We do it wrong more than any other grade level," he said, a problem he attributed to the particular needs of young adolescents -- and the widespread tendency of middle schools to ignore those needs in favor of creating more traditional school programs.

Amidst the desperate search for more high-quality options, however, one D.C. school, the Columbia Heights Education Campus, or CHEC, is demonstrating how to reimagine middle school in ways that match the developmental needs of children.

"Making middle schools into mini high schools is a bad idea," says CHEC's founding principal, Maria Tukeva. "School has to become a place where every child has their own individual learning plan, and where the learning is always made as hands-on and as relevant to the children as possible."

It wasn't always that way at CHEC, a school that was founded in 1979 as an alternative school for poor, minority and limited-English-speaking students. In fact, what began as an experiment with 40 students has now evolved to a campus of nearly 1,300 middle and high school students -- 90 percent of whom are black or brown, and 82 percent of whom go on to attend a four-year college.

In many respects, CHEC feels like a college campus, filled with different choices and opportunities. Students can take language classes in Arabic, Chinese and Italian; participate in student exchanges in Brazil, Haiti, or Indonesia; and enroll in 15 different AP classes.

And yet, when policy makers and local media bemoan the lack of quality middle school offerings in D.C., the only viable option that gets mentioned is Alice Deal, a school of similar size and similarly diverse set of course offerings -- and a community with a significantly larger population (42 percent) of white students and families.

Does the relative inattention CHEC receives reflect D.C.'s ongoing tensions -- and prejudices -- regarding race and class? Perhaps, but this much is clear: While district elementary schools have become increasingly diverse as the city has gentrified, poor and/or minority students continue to make up the overwhelming majority of all but one of the city's standalone middle schools.

Meanwhile, Tukeva is quietly piloting a new effort to create more differentiated learning environments for her kids and urging all her teachers to start thinking differently about their roles and responsibilities in the classroom. "I'm always telling them, 'You have to differentiate in everything you do,'" she told me.

Tukeva's insistence on creating more active, personalized learning opportunities for children is right in line with the developmental needs of middle schoolers. As child development expert Chip Wood explains in his book Yardsticks: Children in the Classroom Ages 4-14:

Twelves (and thirteens and fourteens for that matter) probably do not belong in formal school environments at all, but in some kind of cross between summer camp and the Civilian Conservation Corps camps of the Great Depression -- plenty of physical activity, structured groups and time with peers, with a little formal education thrown in.

Tukeva's emphasis on making CHEC a school at which every child has a personalized learning plan is also in line with the prevailing winds in American school reform. As U.S. education secretary Arne Duncan has said:

We want to make sure every child has access to knowledge and the chance to learn 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The idea that a child could just sit in a desk for six hours a day, five days a week during the school year and learn just doesn't make sense anymore.

For Tukeva, the future design principles of school should have three components: personalization, or the idea that every student should be able to work on what he or she wants to work on in order to reach a high common standard; blended learning, or the leveraging of technology in order to vary both the delivery and the management of content; and global education, or the commitment to make a child's learning feel real, relevant and experiential.

"We're all experiencing the big shift from the Industrial belief system that some kids will make it and some won't," she said, "to a new model in which everyone's potential can and must be fulfilled. And we know the shift to that will take time, but we're all in."

D.C., are you listening?