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Taking Middle Schoolers Out of the Middle

When John Smith, a swaggering sixth grader at one of New York City’s growing collection of kindergarten- through eighth-grade schools, feels lost, he heads downstairs to the colorful classroom of his former third-grade teacher, Randi Silverman, for what she calls a “Silverman hug.”

“When I get mad I go to her,” John, 11, said amid the lunchtime buzz in the cafeteria of his school, Public School 105, on the Rockaway peninsula in Queens. “When I feel frustrated I’ll go to her. When I feel like I can’t do it no more I go to her, and she tells me I have to do it.”

Miles away at Frederick Douglass Academy in Harlem, a 6th- through 12th-grade school, teachers keep the sixth graders looking forward, toward college. One recent morning, a class peppered a guidance counselor, Michael Lloyd, with queries, from “Where is Harvard?” to “What does Ph.D. stand for?”

The two schools, in disparate corners of the nation’s largest school system, are part of a national effort to rethink middle school, driven by increasingly well-documented slumps in learning among early adolescents as well as middle school crime rates and stubborn high school dropout rates.

The schools share the premise that the way to reverse years of abysmal middle school performance is to get rid of middle schools entirely. But they represent opposite poles in the sharp debate over whether 11- through 13-year-olds are better off pushed toward adulthood or coddled a little longer.

Should the nurturing cocoon of elementary school be extended for another three years, shielding 11-year-olds from the abrupt transition to a new school, with new students and teachers, at one of the most volatile times in their lives?

Paul Vallas, chief executive of the Philadelphia school system, thinks so, and he has closed 17 traditional middle schools since 2002, while converting some three dozen elementary schools into K-8s. “The fifth to sixth grade transition is just too traumatic,” he said. “At a time when children are undergoing emotional, physical, social changes, and when they need stability and consistency, suddenly they’re thrust into this alien environment.”

Others argue that 11-, 12- and 13-year-olds thrive in the presence of older role models and reminders of concrete goals, like playing varsity sports and getting into college.

“Kids are forward-looking — they don’t get nostalgic for second grade when they’re in third grade,” said Larry Woodbridge, principal of the Secondary School for Law in Park Slope, Brooklyn, where the award-winning high school debate team will teach a middle school social studies unit this spring.

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