By Jeffrey Bishku-Aykul and Daschell M. Phillips
Heather Patay, program director of the Math, Science and Technology for Quality Education program at Northeastern Illinois University, discussed the purpose and elements of a quality middle school education Wednesday evening at the Hyde Park-Kenwood Community Action Council (HP-K CAC) meeting.
The council, which was born out of a group of community members that initially formed to fight to keep Canter Middle School, 4959 S. Blackstone Ave., open, has identified middle school as part of its three-point strategic plan along with early childhood education and social emotional learning.
During the presentation, which Patay gave at Kenwood Academy High School, 5015 S. Blackstone Ave., she highlighted how middle school education addresses the needs of students at varying levels of development and fielded questions on how to implement mid-level education at local expanding schools.
Patay, who also works with the Chicago Teachers’ Center, called the middle grades are “one of the most important periods of time” for a child to learn responsibility. She said that while the legal definitions of mid-level education vary, its emphasis is developmental.
“It is built around social-emotional standards and building capacity in kids to make decisions for themselves to become more and more self managing,” Patay said.
She also emphasized the importance of middle schoolers working in small groups and teachers from different disciplines working together to streamline learning.
Patay said there is no such thing as isolated knowledge.
“Particularly in this day and age, there is no such thing as a science that doesn’t use mathematics,” Patay said. “There is no such thing as a mathematics that doesn’t use reading or language.”
She said the advisory classes boost grades and motivates students to focus on academics.
“What it is really is an opportunity for the teacher or the staff member to make a close adult relationship with a group of kids so that the kids know they’re known,” Patay said. “These programs are highly successful and have been tracked to major decreases in behavioral problems, increases in attendance, increases in grades, all the good stuff that you want.”
Patay said that the success of a middle school advisory program requires the support of administration and faculty.
Carl C. Hurdlik, Chicago Public Schools community engagement specialist at the Office of Family and Community Engagement, said implementing the middle school structure Patay presented could happen organically at the school and network level.
“I think that a lot of it is handled at the school,” Hurdlik said. “The principal sees what the needs are and hopefully makes adjustments.”
He said the HP-K CAC , “can start the conversation by going to principals and networks and saying ‘We learned this from the experts. How can we implement it in our schools?’”
Hyde Park parent Irami Osei-Frimpong expressed concern about the community’s loss of Canter Middle School, which is being closed this summer after its final 8th grade class graduates. He asked Patay how the experience at Kenwood High School’s academic center, which serves 7th and 8th graders, could be recreated at expanding elementary schools.
“The problem that [Canter solved] was that it allowed the 7th and 8th graders who were not accepted into the academic center in the neighborhood not [to] feel like losers,” Osei-Frimpong said.
Patay said resources would be needed to offer 7th and 8th graders a high quality middle school experience.
“This is not something that can be done without some money,” Patay said. “Because the way in which the most successful K to 8 with upper grade middle schools function is that you do need to provide the students with the kind of labs, the kind of equipment, the kind of ownership of their space as they would have in a freestanding building.”
Patay suggested an audit of a freestanding school to determine what elements are needed to recreate a middle school education experience at a K through 8 facility.
Patay said elementary schools such as Ray, 5631 S. Kimbark Ave., and Bret Harte 1556 E. 56th St., that are recreating 7th and 8th grades from scratch have the opportunity to assess and immediately address any structural, academic or social emotional issues that may arise during the transition.
Hyde Parker Marcy Schlessinger, whose four children attended Ray school from kindergarten through 8th grade, said she once served on a committee formed by then-CPS CEO Arne Duncan to determine whether Ray’s middle school grades should be moved to Canter.
“The Ray School contingent to that group did not want to separate,” Schlessinger said. “We wanted to keep the 7th and 8th grade at Ray School. We came up with a whole list of things ourselves that could improve the school for middle schoolers.”
Schlessinger said, “now we’ve come back around to the place where we could maybe try to get all of that for our school.”