The next session began with Hanh Cao Yu of The California Endowment introducing Mayor Libby Schaaf of Oakland, California. Following Mayor Schaaf’s remarks was a panel of presentations featuring Robby Dodd of Walt Whitman High School, Joey Jones of Robert Frost Middle School, Jeff Sullivan of Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS), Tanya Thompson of Resiliency Services, Philip Harris of Broward County Public Schools (BCPS), and Kristofer Comeforo of Stuart-Hobson Middle School. This panel was moderated by Kristofer Comeforo and featured these middle school administrators and their innovative approaches to the school structure, culture, and climate.
Mayor Libby Schaaf of Oakland, California, described her city’s achievements in its quest to become the healthiest city in America. She expressed her appreciation as a mother of two “middle schoolers” for the work focusing on middle school students by experts at the workshop. The mayor acknowledged the high levels of mental health concerns, high rates of overweight and obesity, bullying and other unhealthy conditions, and the need to tackle these problems with a multifaceted approach.
The first program that Schaaf discussed was Oakland Goes Outdoors, which is partnered with the Oakland Unified School District, the San Francisco Foundation (SFF), and Bay Area Wilderness Training as part of SFF’s Youth Access to Nature initiative. This grant program focuses its efforts on middle school students across 13 schools and is in its 3-year
pilot period. The program provides more equitable access to the outdoors for underserved youth. Schaaf talked about the outdoors as not only a physically healthy opportunity for children but also an avenue to improve their mental health (SFF, 2019).
Schaaf described the second program, Oakland Thrives Leadership Council, a citywide initiative to make Oakland the healthiest city in America. As shown in Figure 3-1, the council aims to achieve its mission by addressing the social determinants of health for children and families using a multisector approach with a focus on five areas: health, education, wealth, safety, and housing. Schaaf called this approach “ambitious” because it hopes to allow systems-level and cultural changes (Oakland Thrives Leadership Council, 2018).
Schaaf concluded by considering her path in city government. She said she views her more than 20 years of work for Oakland as a clear asset and believes in multisector approaches to solving problems and promoting health in her community, including academia, nonprofit agencies, and government. To exemplify this, she launched Oakland Promise when she became mayor to ensure that “every child graduates high school with the expectations, resources and skills to complete college” or trade school and be “successful in the career of his or her choice.” This strategy provides tuition-free community college, scholarships to 4-year colleges, a $500 college savings account to all babies born to Medi-Cal-eligible parents, financial education to these parents, and $100 kindergarten scholarships.
Schaaf shared that collaboration may bring about significant, positive, and lasting change that government alone cannot achieve. She said she discovered a need to collaborate with those outside of government in order to bring information and best practices back to the government to change a system that perpetrates and maintains barriers to health and success (Oakland Promise, n.d.).
Robby Dodd, principal of Walt Whitman High School in MCPS in Maryland, introduced the session by discussing his transition from working in an elementary school to a middle school, which provided him with the unique ability to see his students transition from one setting to another. He noticed that student engagement and achievement were decreasing for students progressing from sixth to eighth grade, anecdotal information that was supported by a Gallup Hope survey (Gallup, Inc., 2020). He saw findings in the peer-reviewed literature exemplified in his school, such as the relationship between large class sizes and lower achievement and lower self-efficacy levels for middle school teachers when compared to their elementary school counterparts. Dodd mentioned that with his experience as an elementary school leader and teacher and middle school principal, he thought that the most significant factor in middle school engagement and achievement lay in the bureaucratic organizational structure itself. Dodd compared and contrasted elementary and middle school structures: in elementary school, students spend the vast majority of their time with one teacher and the same group of students, which may allow for developing stronger relationships. Conversely, middle school students have seven or eight teachers and do not attend each class with the same cohort of peers. They have more teachers but not necessarily more opportunities for strong relationships, even though “nonparental adults” become more important at this point.
Dodd described Project SUCCESS as a response to these concerns. SUCCESS stands for “Student Unified Curriculum Combining English, Digital Literacy, Science and Social Studies.” Project SUCCESS employed one teacher for the English, digital literacy, science, and social studies classes, thereby reducing the number of classroom transitions for sixth graders (MCPS, 2016). The students spent half the school day with the same cohort of peers. Findings from the intervention demonstrated that that students’ achievement, engagement, and perceptions of the classroom environment increased positively (MCPS, 2016). Students demonstrated improvement in literacy development, which included vocabulary, infor-
mational text, and literacy text. Dodd reported that when the results were controlled for the students’ poverty designation, Project SUCCESS eliminated the achievement gap in literacy development. Dodd noted that students who received free and reduced-priced school meals outperformed those in the control group who did not (i.e., those in a better socioeconomic position). Dodd added that students in Project SUCCESS achieved a higher cumulative grade point average in sixth grade, demonstrated less willingness to take risks and more willingness to actively participate in class, and valued their peers more than those in the control group. Lastly, Dodd noted that teachers who were not participating in Project SUCCESS emphasized grading homework more than participating teachers did. Moreover, they did not feel as if they knew their students very well because they had so many more students (150) in a single school year. Overall, Dodd found that Project SUCCESS teachers strongly felt that they assisted their students more with personal or social problems compared to nonparticipants. He stated that in 1989, the Carnegie Corporation’s report Turning Points suggested that departmentalization in middle schools needed to be replaced with student-centered approaches and that the majority of middle schools still operate under the antiquated approach, to students’ detriment. He stated that the existing middle school structure should be changed so that teachers will become “teachers of kids and not just teachers of content.”
A Culture of Excellence
Joey Jones, principal of Robert Frost Middle School in MCPS, then gave a presentation on the culture of middle schools and how these help meet the needs of students. Jones began by describing the student demographics at Robert Frost: 39 percent are Asian, 37 percent are White, 11 percent are Black/African American, 9 percent are Latino/Hispanic, and 4 percent are multiracial, but more important than those percentages was the notion that 100 percent of those students were “at promise.” To optimize that promise, Jones explained that every year his staff is told that he expects “a PIE,” which stands for “professionalism, integrity, and excellence.”
Jones briefly pointed out some developmental characteristics of middle schoolers that must be accounted for when interacting with them: they have a short attention span, the tendency to misinterpret emotions and instructions, and a need for 9 or more hours of sleep. Jones re-emphasized that middle school represents a significant time for brain growth.
Using the National Association of Secondary School Principals’ Building Ranks (2019), which creates a structure for effective school leadership (see Figure 3-2) and focuses on building culture and leading learning,
Jones differentiated between school culture and climate. Jones explained that school culture is the way teachers and staff collaborate and have a relatively constant shared set of beliefs, values, and assumptions. School climate is the effect of the school on students and may change constantly throughout the week or even the day. School climate includes teaching practices, diversity, and relationships between administration, teachers, staff, parents, and students. In response to the desire to improve culture and climate, Jones described a relationship-building approach involving togetherness, excellence, and action to achieve measurable results. He explained that there first should be trust built among team members, which can be achieved through clear communication techniques, active listening skills, and pursuing equity.
Jones continued by stating that Robert Frost Middle School believes in promoting a culture of excellence and that “its core values are to value and respect each person, create a safe and nurturing learning environment and create a sense of ownership and responsibility for each student’s and teacher’s success; however, it has not been without challenges.” Jones gave an example of an instance when students repeated song lyrics with offensive language. The act was recorded on a cell phone and went viral on social media. Jones, as the principal, used this as an opportunity to spread awareness about race and relationship building for both students and adults via a community forum titled “Building Bridges, Let’s Talk About Race.” The forum was used as a platform to discuss race in general, not to address the specific song incident. What started with one community forum then expanded to learning communities to further dialogue about similarly difficult topics and to provide a space for dialogue in the community. He added that the school is invested in the community and that Robert Frost Middle School “likes to give.” He shared that when the federal government closed, the school hosted an appreciation dinner for government workers; it also sponsors a turkey trot every year with a food drive and monetary donation to the community. Finally, he said that the school has an organic garden with which to donate produce to a local food bank.
Last, an important aspect to the culture of excellence at Robert Frost Middle School is the program “Each One Trust One,” which conveys the idea that every student should have one trusted adult (MCPS, 2018). This helps students to feel safe approaching others about mental health issues, bullying, and specifically suicide. When this strategy was implemented in 2018, 70 percent of students reported having a trusted adult; by the end of the year, that increased to 82 percent.
Jeff Sullivan, director of Systemwide Athletics at MCPS, discussed the importance of extracurricular programs in middle schools within MCPS, the largest school district in Maryland and the 13th largest nationwide (MCPS, 2020a). MCPS has more than 38,000 students attending 40 middle schools (MCPS, 2020a) and a diverse student body. More than 35 percent of its students participate in the free and reduced-price school meals program (MCPS, 2020a). Sullivan discussed MCPS’s aim to increase student engagement and parental involvement, provide equitable access to all students, and promote positive character development.
He explained that there are three major components to their extracurricular program: extracurricular clubs and activities, intramural programs, and interscholastic athletics. Stipends for extracurricular activi-
ties, which are consistently allocated across all schools, allow principals to meet with students and decide which clubs will be funded in that school, allowing for different student interests to be supported. Intramural programs are an extension of the physical education curriculum, school rather than district based, and aim to provide students with a safe environment where participation, personal success, and creativity are actively promoted.
The athletic program, which includes about 5,000 middle schoolers, is “an introduction to competition” in which students take part in team sports. Current programs available to seventh- and eighth-grade students include boys’ and girls’ slow-pitch softball, co-ed cross country, basketball, and soccer.
The extracurricular activities and athletics programs promote the MCPS philosophy of athletics, which is centered around the core values of respect and sportsmanship; academic excellence; integrity and character; spirited, safe competition; and equity and access (MCPS, 2020b) and encourages student excellence through the athletics program (see Box 3-1).
Sullivan continued by explaining the academic eligibility standards and expectations to which students must adhere; he further emphasizes this to students by stating, “You’re student-athletes; you’re students first.” All programs promote a positive culture by addressing bullying, harassment, and hazing. Additionally, MCPS promotes equity and access. There are no fees or costs for extracurricular activities. The district is working
toward eliminating transportation, equipment, uniform, and other associated costs for all students.
Sullivan said he found there are various ways that extracurricular activities and athletic programs can promote parental involvement. He added that while parents often attend their child’s athletic events, MCPS goes one step further and engages them by creating a parent portal that allows them to check grades and connect to teachers.
In closing, Sullivan stated that coaches should be role models and that extracurricular activities and athletics programs help develop better schools and students.
Reimagining Middle Grades1
Tanya Thompson and Philip Harris of BCPS in Florida continued the panel presentations. Thompson first described the Reimagining Middle Grades effort, which BCPS began in July 2018. She explained that BCPS wanted every child to be “literate, emotionally healthy, and academically successful in a safe, experiential learning environment.” As part of this effort, BCPS evaluated and assessed its schools and how students were learning. Teachers had been using the traditional lecture-style approach, but this did not appear to be engaging the students in the classroom. In response, the Reimagining Middle Grades initiative took a new approach to the classroom and school dynamics. Thompson mentioned that students became more responsible for their learning through project-based learning (PBL), which focuses on learning skills and goals by using real-world problems to apply and grow their knowledge. Thompson added that through the initiative, BCPS also examined its connections (i.e., the relationships between adults and students), which the project strengthened. A welcoming culture was cultivated so that students would feel welcomed, have a sense of belonging, and feel they had purpose. To foster applied learning, BCPS added middle school elective classes so that students had a creative outlet for learning, gained autonomy, and became excited to attend school (BCPS, 2020a).
Thompson explained that the initiative is not yet at scale at BCPS, which means that the 44 middle schools are divided into different categories (see Figure 3-3). Fifteen middle schools focus on social-emotional learning (SEL) and 15 on PBL, but all schools use applied learning techniques (Gohl et al., 2018). Ambassador schools (four middle schools)
1 This section summarizes information presented by Tanya Thompson and Philip Harris of BCPS. The statements made are not endorsed or verified by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.
combine both SEL and PBL focuses but have not implemented the full program yet because of competing interests.
A fourth set of 10 schools is designated as the Community Foundation of Broward schools. These schools have the largest scaled effort by having both SEL- and PBL-personalized classes due to the increased funding from the Community Foundation of Broward grant. Thompson explained that the foundation is a nonprofit organization with longstanding ties with BCPS. One focus of the foundation is to increase the high school graduation rate by addressing middle schools because they are considered to be a lever. The $3 million grant awarded to BCPS to bolster the Reimagining Middle Grades initiative was the largest in the history of the foundation. The grant requires a dollar-for-dollar match, which promotes accountability and collaboration. Thompson mentioned that the mutual responsibility helps BCPS advocate for students who are traditionally overlooked at those Community Foundation of Broward schools.
For the personalized classes, 1,448 students were identified using criteria such as low standardized test results and end-of-year course grades. In addition to either having an SEL or a PBL focus, each class also has a
teacher that is akin to a “school mom” or “school dad,” as Thompson described them, who leads each personalized class. This teacher acts like a parent to make students accountable, teach them social-emotional skills, and engage them in weekly conversations focused on resiliency, grit, decision making, and character building. This feature establishes and promotes stronger adult–student relationships and provides students with skill sets as they develop emotionally and academically, she explained.
Thompson briefly discussed the program’s evaluation efforts. BCPS identified students in the other 34 schools with similar characteristics to those in the program, and designated them as a comparison group. She explained that BCPS reported to the foundation on a baseline of absences, behavior, and grades of the program and comparison group students. Thompson said there were no significant differences between participants and the control group in the initial year. However, after analyzing the first quarter of the second year, the administrators found that students in the program had fewer negative behavior incidences and higher grade point averages.
Thompson concluded by briefly illustrating what she imagines for middle schools at BCPS (see Figure 3-4) and mentioned that funding and sustainability are points of worry.
Philip Harris, program manager of the Recovery and Resiliency Program, then began his presentation by describing his program’s initiative created in response to a shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on February 14, 2018, that killed 17 people and wounded 17 others (BCPS, 2020b). Harris stated that the shooting caused a “ripple effect” throughout the community. Turning his attention to the middle school, Harris described how many high schoolers fled the school grounds by “literally jumping over the fence over to Westglades Middle School and running inside [a] portable … [with] blood all over them.” Harris said that students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas, Westglades, and Coral Springs (the other middle school) were particularly affected by the trauma both in the short and long term. Harris noted that the situation was challenging because teachers are not mental health professionals or trained to respond to children who may have been traumatized. Thus, BCPS created the Recovery and Resiliency Program, funded through the federal Department of Education, the state, and private donors throughout the county. The initial team comprised therapists, social workers, a psychologist, a nurse, and employment assistance program counselors, all aimed at addressing the mental health needs of teachers, staff, students, and their families within BCPS.
Harris continued by describing the response and recovery needs of the students who experienced the school shooting. Immediately afterward, emphasis was placed on reducing harm, containing damage, mitigating efforts, informing stakeholders, and coordinating all response efforts. Examples of these response and recovery activities included crisis counseling, referrals to various resources, public presentations, and a media presence. In 2019, almost 2 years later, the community is “going into a recovery phase.” Harris said that their focus is ensuring that each student in BCPS is receiving mental health counseling services. Currently, at least 10 mental health teams are spread throughout BCPS due to increased need; he added that a recent increase in local funding has provided for an expansion of 134 mental health professionals. In addition to professional staff, custodial and cafeteria staff and bus drivers are receiving training in psychological first aid. Harris mentioned that in addition to his position as district program manager for the Recovery and Resiliency Program, there is also a service manager: Martha Rodriguez, a clinician who liaises with the wellness center located at Marjory Stoneman Douglas. Harris concluded by stating that community partners, including the Center of Mind-Body Wellness and the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement in California, have been integral in promoting this mental health response.
Transitions to Middle School2
Kristofer Comeforo, principal at Stuart-Hobson Middle School in Washington, DC, began his presentation by describing the demographics at his school, which hosts grades six through eight, with 492 students and 59 staff members. Forty percent of students are classified as economically disadvantaged, making this a Title I3 school; they receive free and reduced-price lunches. Black students make up 79 percent of the student population, followed by White (13 percent), Hispanic/Latinx (5 percent), and multiracial (3 percent). Only about 30 percent of students live within the boundaries of the school. Comeforo explained that the school choice model in District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) is aggressive: students at his middle school attend almost 20 elementary schools and go on to 5 high schools plus 14 additional schools (in smaller numbers).
Stuart-Hobson has many community partnerships, including City Year, Capitol Hill Cluster Parent Teacher Association, After-School All-Stars, One Common Unity, and Communities in Schools. Comeforo stated that the goal is to have all students feel loved, challenged, and prepared and that these partnerships help toward this goal.
Comeforo explained that Stuart-Hobson administers the Panorama Survey, which measures students’ sense of belonging, key social-emotional aspects, academic resiliency, student and parental satisfaction, and relationships (Panorama Education, n.d.). The results show an overall improvement over the past several years. Student satisfaction has increased by 4 percent, as has parent satisfaction, demonstrated by the fact that 93 percent of families who start at the middle school finish there. Students reported having a higher sense of belonging because they felt respect from their peers, understood, and that they matter to others.
Comeforo explained that middle school is a time of transitions that can be difficult to manage. First, he said, is the transition from elementary to middle school; Stuart-Hobson had 180 sixth graders from 25 different schools in 2019. Then, there was the transition from middle school to high school; he said that for the 2018–2019 school year, 136 students went to 25 different high schools, which is difficult for students, teachers, and administrators to manage.
Comeforo discussed structural programs and activities to alleviate problems caused by these transitions. The first was the Ninth Grade
2 This section summarizes information presented by Kristofer Comeforo of Stuart-Hobson Middle School. The statements made are not endorsed or verified by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.
3 Title I is a federally funded education program that provides supplemental funds to school districts to assist schools with high student concentrations of poverty to meet school education goals.
Academies, which aims to help students transition from eighth to ninth grade and beyond. He describes it as having a clear mission of creating strong relationships with adults, giving clear academic expectations, and promoting academic success through classroom routines, leadership and teamwork, instructional design, and recognition. Comeforo stated that in 2012, before DCPS instituted the program, only about 50 percent of students completed ninth grade on time; afterward, it increased to 71 percent.
As Comeforo noted, the DCPS school choice model creates some challenges for teachers and administrators. For example, he said, students do not have their academic records transferred with them when they move to and from various schools. The second activity he introduced to address issues with transitions was the data exchange necessary to facilitate them. RaiseDC, Comeforo described, was created in response to this challenge.4 It is a cross-sector collective action group that created the Bridge to High School Data Exchange in 2016 to share student data quickly and efficiently between middle schools and high schools regardless of whether the data are on public, private, or charter school students. RaiseDC also creates a space for dialogue between schools to share experiences, interventions, and best practices (RaiseDC, 2019). Comeforo noted that the data exchange is not limited to academic records; RaiseDC organized a systematic KID TALK so that teachers and administrators from middle school and high schools had time to discuss each of the students face to face. The setup, he explained, was like speed-dating, but the topic of conversation was students making the transition to high school.
Marice Ashe, formerly of ChangeLab Solutions, asked about security in schools to prevent violence. She pointed out that many schools across the country are discussing options of police presence in schools and arming teachers. She wanted to know more about how to keep students safe while fostering an environment conducive to learning. Harris responded by stating that the Florida governor established the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission, which produced regulatory policies and procedures related to the safety and security of all schools in the state, including charter schools. As an example, Harris mentioned that the Public Safety Commission declared a charter school noncompliant with a mandate that required having a Broward sheriff officer or additional type of security at the school and “shut [it] down.” This was a politically “difficult situation” because the charter school is not under the purview of BCPS. Other security strategies have been
implemented, such as security cameras and doors. Harris added that the Maryland state legislature has required that all teachers and staff complete “a minimum of 5 hours [of] mental health education.” Sullivan added that schools in Montgomery County have been trying to integrate security and emergency management in all activities, especially after-school programs; extracurricular activities and athletics are used to prevent bullying or other aspects that inhibit a safe learning environment. Dodd then reflected on Walt Whitman High School, describing it as a school with immense pressures and expectations. Dodd shared that the year before he was named principal, two students died, one by suicide and one of exposure (hypothermia) while under the influence of alcohol. He added that “One Whitman” is a weekly advisory period and was developed to connect students with teachers and discuss important issues that concern them. The school also collaborated with the Anti-Defamation League and its No Place for Hate Program to give lessons on inclusiveness, identity development, and race issues. Dodd said that the goal for both of these strategies is to build relationships and support students who need help.
Joshua Sharfstein of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health asked for examples of instances when health care or public health have been particularly helpful to the changes their schools have been making. Comeforo responded that there are community resources that parents are not aware of or are uncertain about how to access, particularly in the mental health arena. He mentioned that his district has partnerships that bring mental health practitioners into schools daily and refer students to other mental health resources that administrators are not able to provide within the schools. Comeforo also mentioned community mental health service referrals through the Communities in Schools program. Comeforo said he would like more clinicians who are dedicated to treating the middle school age group, as the demand exceeds the supply. Dodd replied by describing the Kennedy Project, an interagency project that aims to support identified students in need of rental assistance, mental health care, or health care. Harris added that a collaborative approach with community partners is under way in Broward County and that mental health services, policy, safety and security, law enforcement, and nursing should all be included. Harris noted that funding could be a challenge to such a collaboration effort; therefore, BCPS has undertaken innovative approaches, such as telenursing.