Middle School is a Great Place to Land

A conversation with Stephanie Patton, 2024 Chair of the AMLE Board of Trustees

On January 1, Area Superintendent Stephanie Patton assumed the role of Chair of the AMLE Board of Trustees. As the first superintendent to lead the Association, she brings a unique perspective to the role during pivotal time as the organization’s growing membership seeks to raise awareness of the importance of the middle grades at the local, national, and even international levels. Stephanie shared her thoughts with AMLE on why she continues to prioritize middle level education even as her professional role has expanded.

SS: Congratulations on being elected as Chair of AMLE! What do you hope to accomplish during your tenure?

SP: I hope to bring more awareness to the unique challenges that middle level educators are experiencing, those which have been amplified post-covid. We can do this by highlighting the characteristics of The Successful Middle School: This We Believe and amplifying community, leadership and curriculum.

SS: You are a former middle school principal, but now serve as an Area Superintendent at Columbus City Schools in Ohio responsible for more than a dozen schools across the grade span. Why has it been important to you to remain involved in AMLE and middle level education?

SP: Looking at K-12 education, the middle level is where we see a gap open for students. Students often struggle their freshman year of high school, whether academically or socially. Research links high school success or, alternatively, thoughts of dropping out to middle school performance. Sixth grade specifically is when students decide they may drop out, even if they don’t actually drop out until high school. It’s important to have a strong foundation in middle school so students successfully transition to high school and then onto post-secondary or career readiness.

Middle school leadership encompasses so much responsibility. It’s heavier on the social-emotional piece and developing that adolescent. At the elementary level, there aren’t as many of those Maslow needs that educators are trying to meet on a daily basis. In high school, students are continuing to mold who they already are and educators can focus more on the academic. In middle school, it’s 50-50. If you don’t meet both the social and the academic needs of kids, then you’re going to have challenges.

SS: Building off that, why do you think the middle grades are important? What would you say to a district leader who isn’t bought-in on the middle school model?

SP: I would tell them to look at the data and see how students are matriculating and how they’re doing socially and emotionally. I would ask them whether their middle schoolers are taking math courses that are going to prepare them for higher level math, whether they’re developing critical thinking strategies and skillsets. This skill building needs to be really strong in the middle grades. We can see a high-performing elementary student struggle academically in the middle grades because of those other non-academic factors. In those instances, you have to be able to realign to get them ready for high school by the time they leave 8th grade.

I believe middle school is sometimes overlooked at the district level because you don’t have those strong state mandates like a high school graduation requirement or, at the elementary level, a 3rd grade reading guarantee. Without those more standardized goal posts at the middle level, it’s not always pushed as a priority.

SS: You talked about the unique skillset a middle school leader needs for that role, and the heavy responsibility that comes with educating young adolescents. What advice would you give to a new middle school leader?

SP: You have to be passionate about the whole child. It’s not just the academic side. You have to want to support trauma-informed practices, to look at transitions, to understand adolescent peer relationships and social dynamics. I think there are just some of us who gravitate toward that and have a passion for these kids. I know I did, I started my career as a middle school teacher. You have to be prepared to want to help the whole child. Middle school is a great place to land. I encourage educators to consider middle school and the important role it plays in developing our youth. Sometimes that’s understated.

SS: I know at the district level you’re thinking about teacher retention. What advice would you give to an early career teacher and how are districts like Columbus City Schools supporting new educators?

SP: We’ve put a lot of emphasis on student wellbeing. Now we have to look at adult wellness and creating an environment that is safe and nurturing for adults. We need to provide resources to help them in being that first responder to some of the challenges that middle schools face. We also need to prepare them to meet the diverse needs of our changing school populations.

Professional development is important, but it’s also about early career teachers taking care of themselves so they’re not burnt out and want to leave the profession before it stabilizes out. When you’re an experienced teacher, you can identify whether this was a stressful year or this was a really good year. New teachers don’t have that baseline. I’d encourage them to make sure when you take the job it’s aligned to your values. If it is, when the job becomes stressful your first instinct isn’t flight.

SS: From your lens leading in a large urban district, what trends are you seeing across schools and specifically in middle level education?

SP: We have a growing ESL population where English is not their first language or they haven’t attended school before. We’ve had to ask ourselves, how do you meet them at the mid-way point in 6th grade or 7th grade when they don’t have some of those school skills? How are we communicating with the families? What do we know about their culture and community so we can engage with them and gain their support? Whereas in the past where we might have just had a growing Hispanic population, now we’re seeing a more diverse mix of languages of cultures including Nepali, Haitian, and Somalian.

We also have a more transient population after COVID. People are moving due to jobs or housing challenges. We are seeing less stability in the district, especially kids moving around within the district. We want to make sure the experience across schools is somewhat the same so they don’t feel like they’re starting over when they move. That means making sure we’re consistent in our academic structure and the services we provide.

In a large urban setting, we’re also dealing with more challenges related to peer relationships and social dynamics. We’re seeing things that weren’t as common in the past, like negative trends on social media and school threats. Administrators are battling how to deal with those things that kids are bringing into the school from online.

SS: Finally, can you talk about what AMLE has meant to your career?

SP: My membership has helped me grow and develop with like-minded peers. AMLE represents a diverse demographic including higher education, middle school principals, counselors, teachers, social workers, and more. It’s important to get that lens from different positions and all come together and co-create. One of the strengths of AMLE is when we come together it’s not just a sit and get, it’s all about interacting with other school districts and looking at best practices. I feel like the AMLE community is very accessible. I don’t think that there’s a time when people reach out that they don’t’ get a response or support. You’re not going into a place where you’re just shuffled.