Who can forget their first day of middle school?
Thousands of students can, as a growing number of urban school districts -- including Miami-Dade County's -- replace middle schools with K-8 centers.
Students who live in Miami attendance zones for a K-8 center, or "elemiddle,'' can opt to stay in the same school from kindergarten through eighth grade, instead of moving to middle school.
While there's no evidence that K-8 centers are any better academically, Miami and other big-city school districts like Baltimore, Boston, Cleveland and Milwaukee have been phasing them in, partly as a way to relieve crowding.
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The trend has not caught on in Broward County, where the only K-8 centers are charter schools: Rise Academy and Ben Gamla Charter School South.
"I went to middle school. It was so intimidating,'' says Rosy Calvo, Miami-Dade's Principal of the Year.
Now principal of the Miami Lakes K-8 Center, Calvo just graduated her first class of eighth-graders who entered the school as kindergartners.
"If I could go back, I would have liked a K-8 school so much more,'' she says. "Middle school can be nerve-wracking.''
Miami-Dade opened its first K-8 centers in 1999 and now offers 27.
Little hard data exists to indicate which structure does a better job educating students -- or how much grade configuration matters.
The National Forum to Accelerate Middle-Grades Reform, an alliance of educators, researchers and organizations, recently reviewed five studies of grade configuration for middle school-aged students. The group concluded that no particular sequence of grade spans ensures student achievement and that little research supports the K-8 conversion in many big, urban districts.
"There is no silver bullet or panacea. You find very strong, very good schools on both sides,'' says Patti Kinney, an associate director with the National Association of Secondary School Principals.
Most parents and teachers agree that sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders present challenges. Awash in hormones, their bodies and brains undergo drastic changes. Capable of greater abstract thought, kids at this age grow eager to test limits. They drift further from parental authority and closer to the ultimate new power: friends.
HOW THEY COMPAREAt K-8 schools:
- Students stay on the same campus longer, getting to know teachers and peers.
- They don't face the transition to a different school until age 13 or 14, when many have matured.
- K-8 centers tend to have smaller numbers per grade level. A middle school can have 300 to 800 students per grade level; K-8s are likely to have 100 to 200."It's like the difference between going to UF and a small college,'' says Annette Weissman, principal of the K-8 Sunny Isles Beach Community School.
At middle schools:
- They offer a critical transition between small elementary campuses and mega-size high schools.
- K-8 schools cannot offer the wide array of elective classes, clubs and athletics that larger middle schools can."A middle school is going to be the best choice for students who excel in competitive athletics or want a music or drama program that can prepare them for a top-notch high school,'' says Milagros Fornell, Miami-Dade's Associate Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction.