When Lindale Junior High School Principal Vicki Thrasher applied for a program that would give her campus free, expert-level professional support, the interviewers had one key question: Why?
Lindale Junior High performed as well on the 2013 accountability ratings, meeting the state’s standard and earning all three academic distinctions.
From the outsider’s view, it’s a school that’s in little need of help. So why apply for it?
“We want to do anything that’s going to help these students reach their potential,” she said of her reason for applying.
That reason and the school district’s other answers were enough because Lindale Junior High was selected as a Tier 3 Middle School Matters campus. This means the campus is receiving expert-level assistance to address its specific academic needs.
Three researchers and one Middle School Matters staff member were on campus for three days last week to work with the teachers in making the changes they need to make to move the campus forward.
“We just felt like this was an opportunity for us to get training” that is so specific to our students, Ms. Thrasher said.
The Middle School Matters Institute is one of three education reform projects within the George W. Bush Institute.
Christy Murray, Middle School Matters Institute project director, said the Bush Institute subcontracted with The Meadows Center for Preventing Educational Risk to run Middle School Matters. The George W. Bush Institute focuses more on the policy side of things.
The Middle School Matters Institute is grounded in research and works to guide middle school educators to know which organizations are most reliable and break down research into understandable terms and action steps, Ms. Murray said.
The focus on middle school is because those grades serve as a turning point of sorts in a student’s life.
“As early as sixth grade, we can actually predict, with quite a bit of reliability, who is going to drop out of high school,” Ms. Murray said. “So if we can pinpoint, monitor students according to those … (attendance, behavior and coursework) factors, … we can come up with interventions to target those students and get them re-engaged in school and on the right track.”
The Middle School Matters Institute has three levels. Tier 1, which is open to anyone, is the website, which serves as a clearinghouse of resources.
Tier 2 is open to selected schools that apply and involves attending a conference at which educators hear from top researchers and develop plans for how to address three areas of focus on their campus.
Tier 3 is open to open to selected schools and involves researchers working directly with the campus personnel to address their areas of need.
Lindale Junior High was among eight campuses selected out of 44 that applied to attend the conference this past summer. It was among three of those eight selected for Tier 3 intervention that is going on this year.
Last week, when the three researchers and Ms. Murray visited the campus, they worked with teachers and school administrators to implement changes in campus teaching methods.
Lindale Junior High selected advanced reasoning, math and reading as the areas they want to improve.
So the expert visitors taught teachers about strategies they can use when working with students in those subject areas.
For example, eighth-grade math teacher Jenny Dutton said the researchers suggested teachers take a balanced approach to instruction. This means spending equal amounts of time on teaching process, concept and application.
She said she realized that she and other teachers often spend too much time teaching students the process and concept and not enough time letting them apply it.
What the experts suggested was to start with application — show the students how something applies in the real world — then build on that by teaching them the concept and the process.
Ms. Dutton said that suggestion helped her to realize why her students are struggling in two areas of math, measurement and probability.
“They showed me the research …” she said. “Thank you for showing the research because now you showed me why I can’t get an A student.”
In English language arts, eighth-grade teacher Molly Bacon said it was nice to get new ideas because teachers sometimes get in a rut with their instructional methods.
One of the strategies she learned is to encourage her students to share more with each other when responding to literature and poetry.
“In a very structured classroom, sometimes we get away from sharing about passages they’ve read,” she said.
Ms. Thrasher said none of the suggestions have called for the teachers to scratch everything they are doing and start over.
The changes call for more tweaking or building on what they already are doing so that they can become better instructors.
There is no bad teaching happening on campus based on what the experts saw during their walkthroughs, she said.
“If we are able to implement the strategies, we’re (going to) be successful because the kids are (going to) be more prepared for high school and beyond,” Ms. Thrasher said.
The Middle School Matters Institute will continue working with Lindale Junior High through this school year. They have more visits planned along with conference calls and webinars.
Ms. Murray said the campus likely will be featured in a monthly blog on the Internet and held up as an example at next summer’s conference.
Two other schools were selected as the inaugural Tier III sites of the Middle School Matters Institute: Roosevelt Middle School of Erie, Penn.; and Uplift Mighty Preparatory of Fort Worth.