Middle schools are tough. Can the Miami-Dade County school district save them?

Hormones. Attitudes. Odors.

Middle school gets a bad rap.

Those three arbitrary years of adolescent education can be the worst nightmares of kids, parents and teachers alike. But while they inspire countless coming-of-age books, movies and sitcoms, middle schools have become something of a nightmare for the Miami-Dade County school district.

Half of the district’s 49 middle schools earned a C this year. And the majority of those C grade middle schools sit half empty as families flock to the popular option of kindergarten through eighth grade schools. Some parents even pick their child’s elementary school based on the feeder middle school.

As the district strives to maintain its A rating, it can’t ignore that middle schools are holding down the district’s overall grades — and enrollment that brings in funding. So district officials embarked on an initiative that hopes to revamp and rebrand to make middle schools an attractive option again, sinking $200,000 in each of nine pilot schools to see what works.

“We created something that on the basis of results, on a basis of both objective and subjective [research], may buck that trend,” said Miami-Dade Superintendent Alberto Carvalho. “And reverse some of the apprehension that some parents have about middle school.”

Middle schools are just like the middle children in families. They have the most problems.

And those middle school woes aren’t unique to Miami.

Middle schools get overlooked as educators laser-focus on early childhood education and high school graduation rates. With no clearly defined role or goal — and without meeting the needs of a concentrated group of pubescent children — middle schools have become an educational bogeyman.

Back in the ‘70s, middle school was teased out into its own educational experience “specifically to serve the developmental and academic needs of young adolescents,” according to a paper published in the Association of Middle Level Education.

‘Mini high schools’

But what exactly a middle-schooler should know before high school was never defined. Aimless, middle schools adopted the senior high school model. They drilled down on “subject matter specialization, departmentalization, and extensive extra-curricular programs and activities,” according to that paper.

Middle schools soon became “mini high schools,” said Marie Izquierdo, chief academic officer for the Miami-Dade school district.

“When we swung nationally to make these middle schools like mini high schools and become so narrow focused, we lost our kids along the way,” she said. “We lost their feeling of belongingness. We lost their feeling of just wanting to engage.”

Richmond Heights Middle School students celebrate finally having a school yearbook, the first one in seven years. Miami Herald file photo

Coupled with the rise of high-stakes accountability measures, the value of middle schools started to wane.

“We’re taking a high school mentality and we’re trying to make it a prize for young adolescents, and it’s not working,” said Jack Berckemeyer, a Denver-based educator who served as an assistant executive director for the National Middle School Association for 13 years. “We’ve moved more of that high school mentality in our middle schools. It’s content, content, content and not relationships, relationships, relationships.”

Heather Malin, a senior research scientist at the Stanford Center on Adolescence, said middle school students are cognitively capable of more but are on a “roller coaster” of thinking and seeing themselves in the future. Plus, not everyone is as developed at the same time.

“I think that’s exactly the time in life where they should be having a lot more emphasis on social emotional development and making sure that’s tied in with academic work so they can see themselves as successful learners,” she said.

Laurie Barron, a member of the executive council of the Association for Middle Level Education board of trustees and 2013 national middle school principal of the year, said middle schools should consider offering electives on a short-term basis so students can get a taste of their interest..

“The more exposure we could provide earlier, the better,” she said.

Berckemeyer agreed.

“There’s a great line that middle schools are the last best chance to sing in a choir, play in a band, cook and sew,” he said. “I guarantee in the last 10 years they’ve decreased their exploratory options for kids.”

‘Middle School Redesign’

No matter what metric the Miami-Dade County school district looked at, the data were glaring.

Two years ago, staff from the district’s office of academics pored over standardized test results, enrollment and school climate surveys. It was all bad news.

So district administrators began to study middle schools. They shadowed students, created focus groups and set up confessional booths like TV shows “Big Brother” and “Survivor” so students could share how they really felt about their middle school experience.

The team reviewed hours of footage. Students broke down. They said they didn’t feel like they had a relationship with an adult at school. They said they didn’t have an Internet connection at home.

“When we started watching them, from the mouth of babes, it was very eye-opening,” said Izquierdo. “Ranging from the food in the cafeteria to whether they felt safe.”

Carvalho watched teachers and administrators react to the testimonials. He said some teared up.

“We had found that emotional element in the heart of our own educators that something is really amiss, something is really disconnected,” he said.

Students from Richmond Heights Middle School explore and embody the life story of Alvin Ailey and his choreography in “Revelations,” while connecting his story to their own life experiences, community, and the broader world around them on Feb. 7, 2019. Maria Alejandra Cardona For the Miami Herald

The district identified nine middle-of-the-road schools, free from any strings of strict oversight from the state for low performance, spread out around the district that have innovative leaders as principals.

Armed with quantitative and qualitative data, administrators focused on improving three key areas: social/emotional support, planning and operations, and personalization and engagement.

They brought back an hour a week of “teaming” among teachers in each grade level for every middle school. Teachers in that hour discuss how they can help each other support students academically and with a social-emotional approach.

Each of the nine pilot schools also got a full-time “trust counselor,” seen as a mental health position, to give school-wide assemblies, in-class lessons and small-group support.

To get kids interested in school again, officials surveyed students as well as teachers on their interests. Kids at W.R. Thomas Middle in the Tamiami area wanted a digital photography class. Boys and girls wanted to learn how to knit at West Miami Middle. A teacher who moonlights as a musician wanted to teach a class on the history of rock ‘n’ roll.

“Kids come home excited,” said West Miami Middle Principal Katyna Lopez-Martin. “When the kids are happy, the parents are happy.”

Some teachers voiced that they felt ill-equipped to help students with goal-setting and organization, so each middle school teacher in the district received 13 hours of social-emotional training. School support staff also received training so the whole school could be in sync.

“It’s the hidden curriculum,” said Ilia Molina, the executive director who leads a team of five on Middle School Redesign. “You are constantly teaching social-emotional learning by how you interact, how you allow students to interact with each other.”

It’s making a difference at Horace Mann Middle in El Portal, says Principal Kevin Lawrence.

“Where my students come from and some of the things they have to encounter ... teachers themselves have to create an environment for those kids where they have to feel welcome,” he said. “They themselves have a newfound response to how they treat our students.”

A grant from Verizon will place an iPad with a built-in network card in every student’s hands in five schools next year.

To combat low attendance and tardiness, schools began keeping media centers open before and after school and rebranding them as “innovation spaces” with a “specialist” to help students with projects. Schools also found ways to provide transportation for students in extracurricular clubs and activities.

Middle schools even began offering different lunch options, which already got a rousing endorsement by a tasting panel of students last year. Smoothies, healthy breakfast burritos and a sauce bar can now be found in cafeterias.

“What stuck out to me is the students kept saying, ‘This is tasty,’ ” Carvalho said.

The redesign initiative is expanding so all schools can pick “a la carte” which elements they’d like to incorporate, like trust counselors, transportation for extracurricular activities, innovation specialists and an interdisciplinary elective that offers projects on world issues, financial literacy and organization skills.

Schools applied and were budgeted accordingly, Izquierdo said.

The overhaul, including some early steps taken during the last school year, may already be paying off. Izquierdo said this year’s learning gains on state standardized tests in math and English language arts were up for sixth-graders.

Another option

Though early indicators show middle schools are heading in the right direction, it’s too early to tell if there’s sustainable growth. But time to rehab at least the public perception of middle schools is running out as kindergarten through eighth grade schools continue to eclipse middle schools.

Parents in droves began demanding K-8 schools. In Miami, the expansion of those combination schools was largely driven by the explosion of school choice. Many charter and private schools operate on a K-8 model.

The district opened its first K-8 to compete around 2000. Communities lobbied to convert their elementary schools to K-8 schools. Today, there are 52 of those schools in the district, outnumbering middle schools, and they have strong track records of academic performance. Many are at or near capacity.

Families celebrate the convenience of having one drop-off and pickup for their children. It also means one less transition for their babies that keeps them young as long as possible, parents say.

South Miami Middle School students Casey Golden, left, and Michelle Flores, right, get assistance from teacher Suzanne Banas and FIU teacher assistant Oward Cadenas, second from right, as they watch and program a drone in flight at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts during the second season of Kitty Hawk, a STEAM-focused (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, Math) program that is part curriculum and part performance. AL DIAZ

There’s no doubt: Data show that students at K-8s excel in high schools more than their peers from traditional middle schools. Molina, the director of Middle School Redesign, says that while middle school students are coming in below grade level compared to students in K-8s, the learning gains in both types of schools are the same.

“We believe it’s not a function by the way of the caliber of the educational programming at K-8 versus middle school,” said Carvalho. “It’s not specific to the efficacy of the effectiveness of a teacher in a K-8 or middle school. What we learned from the K-8 is the contextual variables ... are vastly different from the conditions in the middle school.”

Carvalho said the district at one point contemplated converting schools to K-8s and eliminating middle schools, but he says there’s still a market for traditional middle schools. Middle schools, he says, have had to have buildings decommissioned and floors sealed off to save money while operating half-empty schools.

“What we came to an agreement about it, it should not be an ‘either or.’ It’s a ‘both and,’ ” he said.

“There are elements of middle school that are positive, that are strong,” he said. “Middle schools by far outpace K-8 in elective programming, art and music, interscholastic sports.”

But if Miami-Dade wants to achieve its goal of a 95 percent graduation rate, it needs to take a hard look at how prepared students are for high school. Just like third-grade scores are used to predict student achievement, the district uses eighth-grade data to track whether students will be ready for graduation.

Carvalho says the key is to bring back to middle schools the nurturing element that is sought after in K-8s. Everything else will follow.

“We ought to wake up to the reality that the environmental, cultural, social-emotional, as well as programmatic offerings, support systems were not synchronized with students’ social, emotional, physical and physiological development,” he said.

“To me, the greatest promise of middle school redesign is a better, more seamless alignment between a health development of a child ... and the educational experience,” he said. “That alignment is powerful.”

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated which assessments showed improvements among sixth-graders.