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Goodbye, middle school! This top school’s K-8 model works.

• Mike Thomas

Secrets of Great Schools

At the time, it seemed like a good idea—concentrating students during their erupting hormones phase in an education environment known as middle school.

Thanks to modern testing, researchers have been able to revisit this decision more than 40 years later and evaluate its effectiveness. And the data are not good. To sum up the sentiment, one called middle school the place where “academic achievement goes to die.”QUOTE_Where academic achievement goes to die

The result has been a resurgence of K-8 schools in urban school districts, including in my hometown of Orlando. Orange County Public Schools, which shared the 2014 Broad Prize for excellence in urban education, has five K-8 schools on the drawing board and three in place.

And that means more work for Paige Tracy.

For 14 years, she has been the principal at Arbor Ridge K-8, which not only ranks as one of the top schools in Orange County but the state as a whole. She is a strong believer in the model.

“Your middle school population is so much smaller,” Tracy says. “That is a definite plus. There are minimal discipline problems, and teachers can teach bell to bell.”

At Arbor Ridge, there are about 250 students in grades 6-8, about a quarter or less the number in a traditional middle school. While some see mixing older and younger students as a negative, Tracy’s experience is that the dynamic very much can be a positive for both groups of kids.

The older students respond very well to responsibility. At her school, they act as mentors for the younger ones. They even tutor them on Wednesdays. At the sessions, you can see second graders and seventh graders reading back and forth to each other. It’s a role the older students enjoy, Tracy says.

Students at computerInterestingly enough, the approach is being verified through research.

In North Carolina, Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools transitioned eight elementary schools to K-8 schools, with an analysis showing positive academic and behavioral results. One teacher noted: “Having the students collaborate across the grade levels really helps the younger students understand the concepts and it’s very rewarding for the older students.”

Research by Martin West, an associate professor of education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and Guido Schwerdt, a postdoctoral fellow at the Program on Education Policy and Governance at Harvard, examined testing data for Florida students in K-8 schools versus middle schools from the 2000-01 school year through 2008-09.

And what they found was better performance from the K-8 students. After ruling out factors such as teacher quality and class sizes, the researchers focused in on the K-8 school climate.

Students in the higher grades “may benefit from being among the oldest students in a school setting that includes very young students, perhaps because they have greater opportunity to take on leadership roles,” the researchers wrote.

Orange County Public Schools doesn’t plan a full-scale realignment to a K-8 model. But it is putting them in where they fit. One is going in about 20 miles east of Arbor Ridge.

Students at desks

The principal will be Paige Tracy. She also will remain principal at Arbor Ridge. Orange County Public Schools Superintendent Barbara Jenkins jokes about cloning her.

“She is the expert in the district for the K-8 model,” Jenkins says. “She runs it incredibly well with extended high performance for her students. We asked her to replicate all those good sound policies at the new school. Clearly she is a star principal.”

Tracy looks forward to the challenge. And one reason she can take it on is that she has her people and her system in place at Arbor Ridge.

QUOTE_She looks for With-it-nessWhat’s her secret to success?

“In a nutshell, dedicated teachers,” she says. “They are here because I asked them to come here and I believe in them.’’

When asked what she looks for in a teacher, she responds, “With-it-ness.”

With-it-ness includes intelligence, a love of teaching and a natural connection with kids.

“You can’t teach with-it-ness,” she says. “You either have it or you don’t. I know within the first five minutes whether I’m going to hire someone. It’s like an instinct. I can tell when I am speaking to someone whether teaching comes naturally to that person. Someone who is a natural is going to be a superstar in the classroom.”

Her long tenure at Arbor Ridge has allowed her to hire a lot of superstars. Some were veterans. Some were career changers. Some were right out of college.

With-it-ness comes in many forms.

Her faith in her teachers has paid off as Orange County Public Schools has eliminated many district-mandated benchmark tests. Arbor Ridge has transitioned to formative tests developed by the teachers.

QUOTE_teachers have to be trusted as the professionals they areIt is more work, but it also gives teachers more buy-in and more flexibility to design assessments tailored for students at different levels. Developing tests also creates stronger knowledge of academic standards and more insight in how best to teach them.

“Teachers have to be trusted as the professionals they are,” says Tracy.

Arbor Ridge doesn’t over-emphasize the state’s standardized tests, tamping down the stress level. There are no events, rallies or celebrations beforehand.

“Test day is another day at school,” she says. “The students know we expect 100 percent. We simply ask that they do their best.”

Since 2011, 90 percent or more of Arbor Ridge students in grades 6-8 have passed their state reading and math tests—far above the statewide average.

“I believe if you keep raising the bar, they will keep rising to clear it,” Tracy says. “The teacher has to have faith and expect that of them.”

Read other posts in the Secrets of Great Schools series:

About the author

Mike Thomas @MikeThomasTweet

Mike Thomas serves in the communications department, writing editorials and speeches. Prior to joining the Foundation, Mike worked for more than 30 years as a journalist with Florida Today and the Orlando Sentinel. He has written investigative projects, magazine feature stories, humor pieces, editorials and local columns. He won several state and national awards, and was named a finalist in the American Society of New Editors’ Distinguished Writing Award for Commentary/Column Writing in 2010. As a columnist for the Orlando Sentinel, he wrote extensively about education reform, becoming one of its chief advocates in the Florida media. Mike graduated from the University of Florida with degrees in political science and journalism. His wife is a teacher and he has two children in public schools. Contact Mike at