Reclaiming Our Way promoting the well-being of African American children & families


Understanding the Middle School Moment


I wanted to share this video clip I came across yesterday, part of a Frontline episode focusing on our nation's high school dropout crisis. The clip describes a growing appreciation among researchers and educators that the path toward dropping out of high school begins years earlier - during middle school. As such, interventions should focus on supporting youth during these earlier developmental years as much as possible.

The clip features a researcher briefly describing the increasingly clearer picture of the circumstances that place children on the path to dropping out.

The data showed that if a 6th grade child in a high-poverty school attends school less than 80 percent of the time, or fails math or English, or receives an unsatisfactory behavior grade in a core course, that absent effective intervention, there is a 75 percent chance that they will drop out of high school.

It may seem far less than rocket science, but it’s something that, in fact, schools by and large have not paid attention to.

Schools have long collected statistics on absences, behavior, and of course, grades, but many educators don’t recognize the significance of those numbers. The principal of Middle School 244, Dolores Peterson, is one who did.

The clip then goes on to describe an effective intervention that has been developed and implemented within a Bronx middle school. The following are among the critical components of an effective intervention:

  • Understanding the various and complex underlying dynamics contributing to the challenging school experiences
  • Providing supports that respond to the specifically identified challenges and dynamics
  • Presence of an Adult Counterforce... someone who encourages and reassures the youth that things can and will work out, despite the current circumstances
  • Allocation and/or reallocation of school resources (staff and financial) to provide the supports children and youth need

While I find the clip very helpful in describing what is possible (as opposed to only describing what's not working), I also find that between the narration and the images the clip falls into a stereotypical pattern of describing and visually portraying poor and non-white children and families.

Take the following excerpt from the clip for example:

If in the middle grades, you develop habits of not coming to school regularly, of getting in trouble or failing your courses, you bring that with you to high school. And the schools aren’t designed to help them succeed.

While seemingly benign to most people, I would argue that the characteristics mentioned above actually misrepresent the challenges being faced by Omarina, the young girl featured in this clip (and so many young people I have interacted with as well). From what I can see in the clip, Omarina's experience appears to be characterized by the cumulative effect of a series of challenging life circumstances, and not so much the stereotypically described delinquency-associated characteristics mentioned by the speaker above.

Unfortunately, however, these references do more to reinforce society's perception of high school dropouts as being "delinquents" rather than advancing a more humane appreciation that many of these youth are displaying developmentally normal (as in understandable) reactions to challenging life circumstances. This is the kind of dynamic that tends to get under my skin in these types of video documentaries that focus on poor and/or non-white children and families.

What's most important about the discussion in this clip, however, is that the dynamics that lead to dropping out are far more complex than typically presented and discussed. Moreover, there are documented effective strategies for intervening and producing better outcomes for youth most likely to drop out of high school.

This highlights the continuing challenge in this country... We have the knowledge about how to do better by children and families... What we need is the will and the persistence to apply what we know in ways that benefit all of our children and families.


From the Introduction to Middle School Moment...

Omarina Cabrera, a student at Middle School 244 in the Bronx, was struggling. With difficulties at home ranging from eviction to the death of her estranged father, her school life began to suffer. She didn’t know it, but she was starting down a path traveled by millions of students each year: the path to dropping out.

Her principal, Dolores Peterson, noticed that something was wrong. While Omarina was performing well in her classes, she had amassed a few absences and had begun to withdraw. In some schools, this might have gone unobserved, but the school administrators at M.S. 244 have come up with a novel way to identify and react to changes in their students’ behavior—changes that at first glance may seem minor.

Middle School Moment explores a growing body of evidence that suggests that the make-or-break moment for high school dropouts may actually be in middle school. While educators have long recognized the importance of the middle grades—and the vulnerability of students in them— middle schools have frequently been overlooked in conversations about the dropout crisis. But that is changing, and middle schools are taking center stage as an important key to improving high school graduation rates.

Robert Balfanz is a leading education researcher at Johns Hopkins University who has been studying the population of children who drop out of high school. He has found that a key moment when kids start down the wrong path is in middle school. According to his research, if a sixth-grade student in a high-poverty environment attends school less than 80 percent of the time, fails math or English, or receives an unsatisfactory behavior grade in a core course, then—absent effective intervention—there is a 75 percent chance that he or she will drop out of high school.

Visit the website for more information about this video, and the larger Frontline focus on this nation's high school dropout crisis.


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