October 19, 2021

Cortland district considers different models for creating a middle school

Finding a happy medium

Joe McIntyre/staff photographer

Eighth-graders Tacoma Lee, left, and Jason Price construct a remote-controlled mobile incubation device Wednesday in Megan Newhouse’s science class at the Moravia Middle School.

This story first appeared in the December 9, 2017 edition of the Cortland Standard. To become a subscriber email us, or call us at (607) 756-5665. Back issues available by request.

Moravia seventh-grader Hailey Badman sat at the end of the day in a classroom with her house leader, scheduling her homework assignments.

The house leader is also her social studies teacher, Stephanie Cronk. Her designation as house leader — a Harry Potter reference — is just a way of making sure one teacher is responsible for a particular group of students throughout the day. These leaders meet with their groups of about 20 students in the morning and at the end of the day, making sure each student has a personal and meaningful encounter with an adult throughout the day.

And the students seem to enjoy it too.

Badman uses that last period of the day to organize her plans for doing homework and Cronk touches base with her about her assignments, making sure she’s on top of all of them, not just social studies.

Badman feels a fellowship with that group of students.

“It keeps us all together and keeps us on task,” Badman said.

Moravia is an example of a middle school done well, said Nance Wilson, chairwoman of SUNY Cortland’s Literacy Department and a member of the state’s Essential Elements: Schools to Watch team. It is why Cortland School District should look to it as it considers creating a middle school of its own.

Cortland is considering creating a middle school, undergoing a facilities study considers options for restructuring how it uses its buildings. The district’s seventh and eighth graders, now in a junior high school model, already eat lunch at a different time than the older grades.

Catherine Wilde/contributing photographer

The sign above displays the Moravia Middle School motto: “Where everybody is somebody!”

Cortland explores options

Cortland City School District is considering different models to educate middle school-age students in a specific way, among them a standalone middle school or a middle school within the high school, like Moravia’s.

It separated seventh- and eighth-graders from the high schoolers this year. For the first time, the junior high school operates under its own distinct code for reporting to the state.

One of the options in creating a middle school at the high school that consultant Castallo & Silky is examining through the facilities study, is creating a separate cafeteria for the younger grades.

That scenario would cost the district about $4 million, with state aid funding 88 percent of it, said district Superintendent Michael Hoose.

Besides the building layout, the district is also recognizing the need for students to be organized in a unique way for specific ages.

Hoose pointed to the team structure the high school now operates under. Seventh and eighth grades are divided into two teams each, so students have some consistency, he said.

Hoose said of Moravia’s house system, “We’re not there yet.”

And it may never get to Moravia’s model.

“There’s a lot of models outthere,” he said. “We haven’t focused in on any particular model.”

In fact, he’ll await a final report from the consultants, due Jan. 23, before commenting further.

Catherine Wilde/contributing photographer

Moravia Middle School Principal Bruce MacBain meets with teachers during a seventh-grade team meeting Nov. 21. Teachers from each subject area make up that grade’s “team” and those team meetings, which include the principal, are held daily to discuss upcoming events, problems particular students may be having and to plan any special lessons.

A district to emulate

Middle school is a sensitive time for children aged 11 to 13. They are breaking away from the supervision they needed as younger kids, yet not fully ready for the independence of high school. They need the freedom to explore, and sometimes make mistakes, but they also need personal support and adults who recognize how difficult that age is.

That’s why on that same recent afternoon, Moravia Principal Bruce MacBain walked down the seventh-grade halls, greeting students by name, making them laugh. He pointed to photographs highlighting the student body’s accomplishments throughout the year, photos that line the walls of the middle school.

MacBain spent his day in meetings with teams of teachers who all discussed ways to ease the blow for a student recently diagnosed with a serious medical problem. They fielded ideas students gave teachers and ultimately Cronk’s group of students put together a get-well package.

The school’s motto, “Where everybody is somebody,” was in action. It is the district’s commitment to its motto that has earned it accolades from the state, district officials said.

Moravia has been a member of a state program — Essential elements: Schools to Watch — since 2006 and recently applied for a fifth consecutive term.

Education in action

House meetings, team meetings, a flexible curriculum, a personalized approach and project-based learning are all central to Moravia Middle School, MacBain said.

The school’s organization is meant to foster the kind of attention experts say is crucial to adolescent development, a time when youngsters are forming their identities and personal connections leave a lasting impression.

Not only does a house leader know which students may have been struggling with a certain test or preparing for a big game, that teacher also knows which students may have fallen behind in homework assignments for other subjects.

The school also has special curriculum days: Flexible scheduling allows teachers to choose certain days to condense all subjects into the morning and devote a chunk of time in the middle of the day to deeply explore a particular lesson.

Those days are a celebration of the curriculum, said MacBain, a crescendo of all that students have learned, as they apply the particular lesson from one subject area across all the others.

The students devoted a day to re-enacting Revolutionary War times, everything from the food that was eaten to the dress of the day. Another day saw a field exercise outside studying the metric system.

During these days, teachers from across all disciplines delve deeply into the subject matter, teaching across subjects.

These enrichment days, MacBain said, get the students further up the pyramid of Bloom’s Taxonomy, an educational philosophy that categorizes learning in a pyramid. The base layer is memory, while the highest level involves students applying the learning to create something of their own.

The idea is to get the students as involved in their education as possible, so they learn, not memorize, he said.

This goal has even been extended to parent-teacher conferences. The seventh grade tried a new model this year, in which students delivered a presentation in front of their parents and teachers, explaining where they need improvement as students, and their biggest takeaways from a lesson.

The format totally changed the conferences for the better, said English teacher Jeff Green.

“They are doing something well while they’re in the building,” Green said. “What parent wants to hear their kid is doing bad thing after bad thing?”

Philosophy, not physical layout, matter

MacBain and Wilson said no matter what setup is chosen, whether a standalone building or integration into another school, the emphasis on kids grades six to eight is what is important.

“The key thing that middle school students need is they need to feel that they belong,” Wilson said.

It goes back to that special time that is early adolescence: In addition to biological changes like puberty, the brain is developing rapidly. Middle schoolers are aware of that, yet haven’t yet learned an adult’s abstract thought processes and need help getting there.

Wilson desribed it this way: “If all of a sudden you looked at the world, and you always saw black and white but now sometimes you see gray and you don’t understand why you see gray or how come it’s gray.”

“And so they need a curriculum that understands that the world to them, and the way they see the world, is changing,” Wilson said.

And educators are still developing ways to do that, which sometimes leads to arguments over when students should learn algebra, for example, said Wilson. Some argue kids should not have to study algebraic equations until they have mastered abstract thought, which some eighth graders have not.

“What makes them so unique is they are going from concrete black and white thinkers, to the ability to negotiate the gray,” she said.