A School District Game Changer

Redesigning the classroom experience to promote success in the middle grades

When it comes to student success, a positive school culture can be as important as the curriculum. When students are engaged, motivated, and empowered, academic success will almost always follow. This is especially true in the middle grades. The experiences students have during the middle years and the perceptions they form about school, themselves, and who they want to be during this time, shape the rest of their school career. John H. Lounsbury puts it this way in his AMLE article The Importance of Early Adolescence: “No other age level is of more importance to the future of Individuals, and, literally, to that of society.”

The same often holds true for academics, as noted by organizations such as the American Institutes for Research and ACT. How well students do on academic tests during the middle years can set the tone for whether they will succeed or struggle in high school.

Just a few years ago, our school district, the Newburgh Enlarged City School District in New York, was struggling with issues ranging from low staff morale to poor academics and mediocre graduation rates. Today our schools are experiencing an amazing turnaround. There are many reasons for this, but one of the core components of our turnaround strategy was to focus heavily on our middle grades. In prior years, much of our transformation efforts focused on early elementary and high school.

Our district has two traditional middle schools serving grades 6-8 and two K-8 schools. As we embarked on a district-wide redesign plan, our math and English scores started going up. However, we found our middle grades were still struggling with a lack of student engagement and ownership. We knew that for our school district to be successful, we had to make sure we were focusing on academics and school culture simultaneously, so we decided to put in place specific structures and strategies to address these two issues. The first thing we did was partner with an education consultancy organization to create a multi-year plan for a middle level redesign for grades 6-8. This included redesigning the classroom experience and building a culture of collaboration, while giving teachers and students input into the plans.

Giving Students a Voice

Prior to our redesign, school leaders were constantly making decisions for students. While these were always done with good intentions, it was time for us to rethink our approach and instead of implementing policies and programs that we thought would be good for students, we needed to get students’ perspectives on the things we were doing. As with any other organizational change, if you want to really make successful change, you need to talk to the students. We needed to find out what environment students thrive in and what they want out of school. By giving our students a voice in the changes we were making, we created buy-in and a sense of community that we did not have before.

As Leah Shafer explains in her article in Usable Knowledge, a publication of the Harvard Graduate School of Education (https://www.gse.harvard.edu/news/uk/16/08/giving-students-voice), “reforms initiated with student input are likely to improve the learning environment for all students, not just those involved in the reforms. And students who feel appreciated and supported typically feel more connected to their school community.” The article goes on to quote Harvard Graduate School of Education faculty member Gretchen Brion-Meisels: “The evidence is pretty clear that when organizations, including schools, give young people agency and voice, and integrate their perspectives into decision-making processes, those organizations are more effective in the work they’re trying to do.”

This holds true for any grade level, but is especially true in middle school. Elyse S. Scott notes the importance of seeking out student voice in the AMLE article Why Awaken the Middle School Voice?: “When teachers become facilitators of learning and students are vested stakeholders, possibilities are endless,” she says. “There is truly only one method to awaken the middle school voice. The path begins by buying into the adolescent world and its demands.”

At Newburgh Schools, we are “buying into the adolescent world” through conversations and empathy walks with students at our middle schools. In empathy walks, we may shadow a student for a day so we can experience school through their eyes or meet with a small advisory group to gain insight for future initiatives. Empathy interviews help us gain a deeper level of understanding on an important issue from the students’ perspective. Through these empathy walks and interviews, students feel supported and engaged.These student-centered opportunities allow them to take ownership of their learning and their school.

We have learned a lot. For example, we learned that to create a culture that will help middle school students thrive, technology has to be infused in our instruction. Today’s middle school students are digital natives and are used to having information at their fingertips. Research is immediately accessible for them. Each student has a device and access to a mobile hotspot. Teachers are transforming their classroom with flexible furniture—furniture that can be moved around the classroom and easily put into different configurations to fit the needs of the students at the time.

We also learned that our middle school students wanted to be challenged with content that is authentic and relevant to real life. So, our teachers are creating more opportunities for projects that will promote critical thinking and collaboration in the classroom to help meet this need.

Building Teams and Collaborating

We conducted similar empathy walks with teachers to figure out what they needed to be successful. We found there was an ivory tower mentality among our middle school staff. While it can be easy for a superintendent or for senior staff members to direct reform work from the top-down, teachers wanted their voices to be elevated and wanted to contribute to the decisions being made at their schools. As we embarked on our redesign, we leaned heavily on strategies in the book The New School Rules: 6 Vital Practices for Thriving and Responsive Schools, coauthored by Anthony Kim, CEO of Education Elements (https://www.newschoolrules.com/). Rule #2 is “Build Trust and Allow Authority to Spread.” The rule is all about building teams, not hierarchies. In other words, instead of telling teacher teams what to do, we needed to give them the autonomy, resources, and creative freedom to do what they need to collaborate and be successful. Teachers know how best to teach their middle school students so schools should create opportunities in which staff members feel welcomed and comfortable sharing their ideas and instructional resources. At our district, we embraced this strategy. We gave control to our teacher teams.

Turning authority over to the middle school teachers has empowered them to collaborate more and make shifts in how they’re delivering instruction. For example, they’re doing a lot more station work now in the classrooms, which has supported academic success. Some teachers who normally would never engage with each other or the administration are now talking to each other more and looking for ideas on lesson planning.

We’re also creating cohorts of teachers to learn new ways to deliver instruction, whether it’s flexible seating or how to use various technology tools and then having them share that with their colleagues. They’re taking those risks and learning together, which has been powerful.

Success at any school district often boils down to being responsive to the needs of your staff and students. Giving our students and teachers a voice and giving our teams the authority to innovate and collaborate has been a game changer for our middle schools, and our entire district. Since implementing our district-wide redesign we’ve seen dramatic changes. Five years ago we only had two schools in good standing. Today we have nine. Our middle schools are improving and so is the morale of the teachers and administrators who work there because of the targeted responsive approach we’ve taken for the middle grades. Our strategies have helped to create a more positive school culture for our teachers and our students that supports success both in our middle grades and district-wide.