On Saturday, April 10th, Baltimore City held its first ever Middle School Fair, where 5th graders this year have been able to choose from any school in the city which to attend next year. Note that some local weights are given to choices, and not every student will get their top pick. This new practice follows close on the heels of all high schools in the city recently becoming citywide ‘schools of choice’, instead of the old pattern where a few magnet or vocational high schools existed but most students attended their comprehensive neighborhood high school.
In looking through the city schools’ web guide to “Middle School Choice” and the brochure (pdf) used to advertise/inform about the new policy, I noticed that the trend of closing middle schools over the last few years has continued, and only five middle schools remain in the city! That is why I wonder if middle schools as a concept are disappearing from the Baltimore landscape.
When I began teaching four years ago at Patterson, a large neighborhood high school in southeast Baltimore, I asked my incoming ninth graders which middle schools they had attended. Highlandtown Middle, a common background for many of my students, was shut down that year. Canton Middle, from which many other Patterson students have come, began to be phased out around the same time and closed its doors at the end of my third year teaching. You may remember the controversy from wealthy neighbors about Baltimore’s decision to open a new school in Canton’s place. Southeast Middle, another former ‘feeder’ middle school for us, has since been closed too. Many of these schools, as well as those middle schools that have closed on the west side or northern parts of the city, have closed due to low test scores and/or citations as being persistently dangerous. This year, four more middle schools are being closed, leaving Baltimore with only five left in the entire city!
Of the five middle schools (grades 6-8) that remain, one is a charter school, while four are traditional neighborhood middle schools. Of those four, three are slated for some form of corrective action or improvement for next year, due to low test scores and low enrollment. Two are being partnered with an outside agency, and another is becoming a themed middle school while “increas[ing] the academic rigor” [quote from this article]. If these corrective actions do not result in large enough student gains in test scores, will those schools be closed too, leaving Baltimore’s school system without any middle?
So what is to become of the middle grades? Baltimore for a number of years has had, alongside its elementary school and middle school paths, a system of K-8 ‘elementary-middle schools’. These are still in place, where students stay in the same (hopefully nurturing) environment through their eighth grade year, then choose a high school. But the big new development promoted by Dr. Alonso, what has been replacing the middle schools over the last two years, is ‘transformation schools’. These are grades 6-12 combination middle-high schools. My expectation is that, within a few years’ time, Baltimore will have two parallel systems, one with K-8 schools + choosing a standard 9-12 high school, and the other with K-5 traditional elementary schools + choosing a transformation 6-12 school.
As a Career & Tech Ed (CTE) teacher trying to recruit students into the fantastic engineering program at my (formerly-neighborhood) high school, these changes make it tougher to find students, especially since our program starts in the tenth grade. All of our feeder middle schools are closed, so the natural track into our school is gone, and we no longer have a large pool of ninth graders at our school from which to recruit into the 10th-12th grade engineering pathway. We have always sent representatives to the high school choice fair, but more clearly needs to be done to reach students at the eighth grade level or earlier.
So one thing we have been working on, today and tomorrow [our last day of school – hooray!], is preparing letters and information packets to send out. We plan on sending these tomorrow to every one of the few remaining middle schools, and to the K-8 schools. We figure it would be impolite to try and poach students from out the 6-12 schools :^) We’re hoping this will help spread the word about our engineering program, since many schools do not yet know of the great things we do. If we can find the time and resources, we would love to do follow-up visits to middle and K-8 schools next fall, bringing a group of students and some engineering projects to demonstrate to and interact with the kids!