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CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — In a middle school hallway in Charlottesville, Virginia, a pair of sixth grade girls sat shoulder to shoulder on a lime-green settee, creating comic strips that chronicled a year of pandemic schooling. 

Using a computer program called Pixton, they built cartoon panels, one of a girl waving goodbye to her teacher, clueless that it would be months before they were back in the classroom; another of two friends standing six feet apart from one another, looking sad. 

“We have to social distance,” explained Ashlee. Then, as if remembering, she scooted a few inches away from her friend, Anna. 

In classrooms off the hallway, clusters of kids from grades 6 to 8 worked on wood carvings, scrapbooks, paintings and podcasts, while their teachers stood by to answer questions or offer suggestions. For two hours, the students roamed freely among rooms named for their purpose — the maker space, the study, the hub — pausing for a 15-minute “brain break” at the midway point of the session. 

Welcome to Community Lab School, a tiny public charter that is trying to transform the way middle schoolers are taught in the Albemarle School District — and eventually the nation.  

“Traditional middle schools are very authoritarian, controlling environments.”

Chad Ratliff, principal of Community Lab School

Here, learning is project-based, multi-grade and interdisciplinary. There are no stand-alone subjects, other than math; even in that subject, students are grouped not by grade, but by their areas of strength and weakness. In the mornings, students work independently on their projects; in the afternoons, they practice math skills and take electives.  

“Our day revolves around giving students choice,” said Stephanie Passman, the head teacher. “We want kids to feel a sense of agency and that this is a place where their ideas will be heard.” 

Anna (left) and Ashlee (right), sixth graders at Community Lab School, create comics depicting their Covid year. Credit: Kelly Field for the Hechinger Report

As a laboratory for the Albemarle district, Community Lab School is charged with testing new approaches to middle school that could be scaled to the district’s five comprehensive middle schools. The school has been held up as a national model by researchers at MIT and the University of Virginia, which is studying how to better align middle school with the developmental needs of adolescents. 

Over the last 20 years, scientists have learned a lot about how the adolescent brain works and what motivates middle schoolers. Yet a lot of their findings aren’t making it into classroom practice. That’s partly because teacher prep programs haven’t kept pace with the research, and partly because overburdened teachers don’t have the time to study and implement it.  

Today, some 70 years after reformers launched a movement to make the middle grades more responsive to the needs of early adolescents, too many middle schools continue to operate like mini high schools, on a “cells and bells” model, said Chad Ratliff, the principal of Community Lab School. 

“Traditional middle schools are very authoritarian, controlling environments,” said Ratliff. “A bell rings, and you have three minutes to shuffle to the next thing.” 

For many early adolescents — and not a few of their teachers — middle school isn’t about choice and agency, “it’s about surviving,” said Melissa Wantz, a former educator from California, with more than 20 years’ experience.  

Now, as schools nationwide emerge from a pandemic that upended educational norms, and caused rates of depression and anxiety to increase among teenagers, reformers hope educators will use this moment to remake middle school, turning it into a place where early adolescents not only survive, but thrive.  

“This is an opportunity to think about what we want middle school to look like, rather than just going back to the status quo,” said Nancy L. Deutsche, the director of Youth-Nex: The UVA Center to Promote Effective Youth Development. 

The Adolescent Brain 

Scientists have long known that the human brain develops more rapidly between birth and the age of 3 than at any other time in life. But recent advances in brain imaging have revealed that a second spurt occurs during early adolescence, a phase generally defined as spanning ages 11 to 14.  

Though the brain’s physical structures are fully developed by age 6, the connections among them take longer to form. Early adolescence is when much of this wiring takes place. The middle school years are also what scientists call a “sensitive period” for social and emotional learning, when the brain is primed to learn from social cues.  

While the plasticity of the teenage brain makes it vulnerable to addiction, it also makes it resilient, capable of overcoming childhood trauma and adversity, according to a report recently published by the National Academies of Science. This makes early adolescence “a window of opportunity,” a chance to set students on a solid path for the remainder of their education, said Ronald Dahl, director of the Institute of Human Development at the University of California, Berkeley.  

Meanwhile, new findings in developmental psychology are shedding a fresh light on what motivates middle schoolers.  

Related: Four new studies bolster the case for project-based learning 

Adolescents, everyone knows, crave connections to their peers and independence from their parents. But they also care deeply about what adults think. They want to be taken seriously and feel their opinions count. And though they’re often seen as selfish, middle schoolers are driven to contribute to the common good, psychologists say. 

Sixth graders at Argyle Middle, in Silver Spring, Maryland, play basketball during recess. Credit: Kelly Field for the Hechinger Report

“They’re paying attention to the social world and one way to learn about the social world is to do things for others,” said Andrew Fuligni, a professor-in-residence in UCLA’s psychology department. “It’s one way you figure out your role in it.” 

So, what does this evolving understanding of early adolescence say about how middle schools should be designed? 

First, it suggests that schools should “capitalize on kids’ interest in their peers” through peer-assisted and cooperative learning, said Elise Capella, an associate professor of applied psychology and vice dean of research at New York University. “Activating positive peer influence is really important,” she said.  

Experts say students should also be given “voice and choice” — allowed to pick projects and partners, when appropriate.  

“Kids have deeper cognitive conversations when they’re with their friends than when they’re not,” said Lydia Denworth, a science writer who wrote a book on friendship, in a recent radio interview

Schools should also take advantage of the “sensitive period” for social and emotional learning, setting aside time to teach students the skills and mindsets that will help them succeed in high school and beyond, researchers say

“You don’t suddenly outgrow the need for play when you’re 11 years old.”

Peter Gray, Boston College

Yet many schools are doing the opposite of what the research recommends. Though many teachers make use of group learning, they often avoid grouping friends together, fearing they’ll goof off, said Denworth. And middle schools often spend less time on social and emotional learning than elementary schools, sometimes seeing it as a distraction from academics

Meanwhile, many middle schools have abolished recess, according to Phyllis Fagell, author of the book “Middle School Matters”, leaving students with little unstructured time to work on social skills. 

“When you think about the science of adolescence, the traditional model of middle school runs exactly counter to what students at that age really need,” said Ratliff. 

A Developmental “Mismatch” 

The notion that middle schools are misaligned with the needs and drives of early adolescents is hardly a new one. Efforts to reimagine education for grades 6 to 8 dates back to the 1960s, when an education professor, William Alexander, called for replacing junior highs with middle schools that would cater to the age group. 

Alexander’s “Middle School Movement” gained steam in the 1980s, when Jacquelynne Eccles, a research scientist, posited that declines in academic achievement and engagement in middle school were the result of a mismatch between adolescents and their schools — a poor “stage-environment fit.” 

Propelled by Eccles’ theory, reformers coalesced around a “middle school concept” that included interdisciplinary team teaching, cooperative learning, block scheduling and advisory programs. 

Although research suggests middle school and high school students do slightly better academically when they start school later in the morning, teens and pre-teens most often start classes around 7:30 a.m. Elementary students, whose learning is less likely to be affected by an early bell time, often begin classes an hour or so later. Credit: Jackie Mader/The Hechinger Report

But while a number of schools adopted at least some of the proposed reforms, many did so only superficially. By the late ’90s, policymakers’ attention had shifted to early childhood education and the transition to college, leaving middle school as “the proverbial middle child — the neglected, forgotten middle child,” said Fagell. 

For many students, the transition from elementary to middle school is a jarring one, Fagell said. Sixth graders go from having one teacher and a single set of classmates to seven or eight teachers and a shifting set of peers. 

“At the very point where they most need a sense of belonging, that is exactly when we take them out of school, put them on a bus, and send them to a massive feeder school,” said Fagell. 

And at a time when their circadian rhythms are shifting to later sleep and wake times, sixth graders often have to start school earlier than they did in elementary school. 

No wonder test scores and engagement slump. 

Related: Later school start time gave small boost to grades but big boost to sleep, new study finds 

In an effort to recapture some of the “community” feel of an elementary school, many schools have created “advisory” programs, in which students start their day with a homeroom teacher and small group of peers.  

Some schools are trying a “teams” approach, dividing grades into smaller groups that work with their own group of instructors. And some are doing away with departmentalization altogether. 

In the ‘70s and ‘80s, reformers coalesced around a “middle school concept” that included such practices as interdisciplinary team teaching and cooperative learning. Kids often learn better when they work together, researchers said. Credit: Nichole Dobo/The Hechinger Report

At White Oak Middle School, in Silver Spring, Maryland, roughly a third of sixth graders spend half their day with one teacher, who covers four subjects. Peter Crable, the school’s assistant principal until recently, said the approach deepens relationships among students and between students and teachers.  

“It can be a lot to ask kids to navigate different dynamics from one class to the next,” said Crable, who is currently a principal intern in another school. When their classmates are held constant, “students have each other’s backs more,” he said. 

“Don’t go back to the old normal.”

Denise Pope, the co-founder of Challenge Success

A study of the program now being used at White Oak, dubbed “Project Success,” found that it had a positive effect on literacy and eliminated the achievement gap between poorer students and their better-off peers.  

But scaling the program up has proven difficult, in part because it goes against so many established norms. Most middle school teachers were trained as content-area specialists and see themselves in that role. It can take a dramatic mind shift — and hours of planning — for teachers to adjust to teaching multiple subjects.  

Robert Dodd, who came up with Project Success when he was principal of Argyle Middle School, also in Silver Spring, said he’d hoped to expand it district-wide. So far, though, only White Oak has embraced it. (Dodd is now principal of the district’s Walt Whitman High School.) 

“Large school systems have a way of snuffing out innovation,” he said. 

Even Argyle Middle, where the program started, has pressed pause on Project Success. 

“Teachers felt like it was elementary school,” said James Allrich, the school’s current principal. “I found myself forcing them to do it, and it doesn’t work if it’s forced.” 

Restoring recess, and other pandemic-era innovations 

But Argyle is continuing to experiment, in other ways. This fall, when students were studying online, the district instituted an hour-and-a-half “wellness break” in the middle of the day. Allrich kept it when 300 of the students returned in the spring, rotating them between lunch, recess and “choice time” every 30 minutes. 

During one sixth grade recess at the end of the school year, clusters of students played basketball and soccer, while one girl sat quietly under a tree, gazing at a cicada that had landed on her hand. Only three students were scrolling on their phones. 

For many middle school students, a return to in-person schooling means a return to a routine that allows no time for play. But, according to researchers, free time is essential to students’ mental health in early adolescence. “You don’t suddenly outgrow the need for play when you’re 11 years old,” says Peter Gray, a research professor at Boston College. Credit: Amadou Diallo for The Hechinger Report

“I thought when we got back, students would be all over their cellphones,” said Allrich, over the loud hum of cicadas. “But we see little of that. Kids really want to engage each other in person.” 

Peter Gray, a research professor at Boston College who has found a relationship between the decline of free play and the rise of mental illness in children and teens, wishes more middle schools would bring back recess. 

“You don’t suddenly outgrow the need for play when you’re 11 years old,” he said. 

Allrich said he plans to continue recess in the fall, when all 1,000 students are back in person, but acknowledges the scheduling will be tricky. 

Related:  How four middle schoolers are struggling through the pandemic 

Denise Pope, the co-founder of Challenge Success, a school reform nonprofit, hopes schools will stick with some of the other changes they made to their schedules during the pandemic, including later start times. “Don’t go back to the old normal,” Pope implored educators during a recent conference. “The old normal wasn’t healthy.” 

Prior to the pandemic, barely a fifth of middle schools followed the American Academy of Pediatrics’ recommendation to start no earlier than 8:30 a.m. (Community Lab School started at 10 during the shutdown, but plans to return to a 9:30 a.m. start.) 

But if the pandemic ushered in some potentially positive changes to middle schools, it also disrupted some of the key developmental milestones of early adolescence, such as autonomy-building and exploring the world. Stuck at home with their parents and cut off from their peers, teens suffered increased rates of anxiety and depression.  

When students return to middle schools en masse this fall, they may need help processing the stress and trauma of the prior year and a half, said author Fagell, who is a counselor in a private school in Washington, D.C. 

Fagell suggests schools survey students to find out what they need, or try the “iceberg exercise,” in which they are asked what others don’t see about them, what they keep submerged.  

“We’re going to have to dive beneath the surface,” she said. 

Deutsche, of Youth-Nex in Virginia, said teachers will play a key role in “helping students trust the world again.” 

“Relationships with teachers will be even more important,” she said. 

Fortunately, there are more evidence-based social-emotional programs for middle schoolers than there used to be, according to Justina Schlund, senior director of Content and Field Learning for the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning. A growing number of states are adopting Pre-K through12 social and emotional learning standards or guidelines and many districts and schools are implementing social and emotional learning throughout all grades, she said. 

At Community Lab School, middle school students typically score above average on measures of emotional well-being and belonging, according to Shereen El Mallah, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Virginia who tracks the school’s outcomes. Though the Community Lab students experienced an increase in perceived stress during the pandemic, they generally fared better than their peers at demographically similar schools, she said.   

Anna and Ashlee, the sixth graders on the settee, said the school’s close-knit community and project-based approach set it apart. 

“We’re still learning as much as anyone else, they just make it fun, rather than making us read from textbooks all the time,” Ashlee said.  

This story about early adolescents was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter. 

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