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Commentary: Reimagining middle schools in LAUSD and beyond

Guest contributor | January 19, 2016

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Ref Rodriguez

Ref Rodriguez

By Ref Rodriguez

Middle school can make it or break it for a student.

Close to 200,000 students in Los Angeles public schools are middle grade students. That’s 200,000 students who are either launched onto the path to high school graduation or knocked off track. And even though research has definitively shown that middle grades experiences have substantial impact on high school graduation and success in college, not enough attention has been paid to these formative years.

That must change.

Many of our middle grade students face a range of challenges that can severely impact their academic performance. Three out of four attend overcrowded campuses, according to a United Way report. One of three show signs of depression. One of every two eighth-graders does not take algebra, a gateway to higher-level thinking.

That’s shameful because the biggest threat to our public education system has now become a complacent attitude toward dismal statistics such as these. If we want to strengthen our local, state, and national economies, we can no longer remain silent in the face of inadequate and unequal learning conditions and opportunities.

Beyond academics, the middle grades are a time when adolescents experience immense social, emotional, and physical changes. Put simply, they are figuring out who they are.  We can help middle grade students become who they want to be by providing innovative and meaningful learning opportunities. For example, the middle grades are a good opportunity to introduce a new language, whether it’s a student’s second or third.  And, let’s encourage our teachers to loop with their students to the next grade, which gives them a sense of continuity that’s absent in the class-shuffling middle grades. 

How do I know? For over a decade I’ve been intensely focused on success in these grades. When I co-founded a middle school in my community, I was driven by my passion to ensure that students between elementary and high school were able to attend a school that prepared them both academically and socially for the rest of their lives. That passion was fed during my campaign by the large number of parents who voiced a similar concern. Today, that fervor grows even stronger, not only for the youth in my board district but also for all students across Los Angeles.

Because I strongly believe that the best ideas for change come from the grassroots, I authored a board resolution, “Creating a Collaborative to Focus on the Middle Grades,” to bring together a team of students, parents, educators, school leaders, researchers, district staff and other experts to create a framework to uplift and reimagine the middle grades in L. A. Unified. The board voted unanimously in support of this resolution. This is the first step in the right direction toward ensuring that our students, as they step into high schools, remain on track to graduate college and become career-ready.

This resolution is historic for LAUSD and for the entire country. The last time we deliberately examined the middle grades this closely was when we came up with the middle schools concept in the 1960s and 70s to separate the campuses from elementary schools. I hope that other districts across the state and nation will also follow suit and make a commitment to our middle grade youth.

I’m not sure what this collaborative will recommend. I don’t have a personal agenda. I simply want us to ask the right questions and to think out-of-the-box.  As individuals, we already have innovative resources and ideas. But, if we work collaboratively, we can truly transform the middle grades and begin to make a substantial and sustainable impact for our students.

These years are widely known as an awkward stumbling block. Let’s turn them into a stepping stone to high school graduation and a pathway to college and life success.

Before his election to the LA Unified school board, representing communities in Northeast and Southeast Los Angeles, Ref Rodriguez co-founded the Partnerships Uplifting Communities (PUC Schools), a charter management organization serving communities in the Northeast San Fernando Valley, Northeast Los Angeles, and Northeast Rochester, NY.  

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