Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School (6-8)
Oceanside Unified, San Diego County
2006–07 Enrollment: 1,812
Percent Free/Reduced-price Meals: 52%
Percent African American Students: 10%
Schoolwide Growth API (2007): 774
African American Growth API (2007): 772
(Note: All data are current as of February 1, 2008.)
Principal: Bob Rowe
Length of time as a principal at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School: 2 years
"An effective school must have a
clear vision of where they are going, defined values about their
purpose, and guiding principals who act on these ideas and are able to
make critical decisions….Establishing high expectations starts with
leadership and is an ongoing process."
Q: In your estimation, what are the greatest challenges facing African American students at the middle school level, in general?
A: The greatest challenges are learning to deal with and balance the shift in social and peer expectations with the demands of a rigorous academic course of study (for example, algebra in 8th grade). Going through puberty adds an extra challenge for all middle school students. In addition, moving from the elementary model of a self-contained class to a rotating-period structure with a different teacher and different expectations every period is very difficult and requires skill in mastering the system, not just the curriculum.
As students reach middle school and adolescence, there is a natural shift in priorities that moves from wanting to please mom and dad to wanting to fit in with their peers. In many situations, students do not want to be associated with the "school boy" image because they are afraid of being alienated by their peers. Carrying a backpack, using a day planner, being called up as an individual for good grades are not values they hold. Having friends and fitting in become more important than school and parents. Subsequently, the school needs to make it "cool" to be successful and to celebrate groups of students who are doing well and improving at any level. Institutionalizing day planners, Cornell notetaking, binder checks, and six-week GPA calculations makes it normal to have good school habits and takes the pressure off of the student. In addition, my award assemblies are full of group recognition with live bands, raffling off iPods, and recognizing students in groups (for example, GPA 3.0, 3.5, 4.0) who get to take the stage with their peers, not as individuals. It is a shift in a culture. Not all parents understand, but the assemblies are about the students, not the parents.
Q: From your perspective, what are three of the most important things your middle school does to support African American student achievement?
A: The three most important things middle schools can do are maintain high expectations and rigor, provide sufficient time and a support structure to succeed, and develop personal relationships that foster accountability.
The whole issue of establishing personal relationships with students is critical so that students feel someone actually knows and cares about them. Using the old concept from Steven Covey's work on The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, the adults have to feed the emotional bank account first before we can ask for withdrawals. How could someone expect an adolescent to pick up their trash at lunch, complete their homework, behave appropriately, and do their best on an end-of-year test if no one has invested in their emotional well-being? Students in middle school are physically bigger and act like they don't care, but deep down they crave acknowledgement, recognition, and a caring environment. Too often we treat them as if they were adults, and the bottom line is they are not. They still need clear expectations, guidance, and support in a caring environment. I try to treat every student as if they were my own son or daughter. I expect a lot, but I am here to support and guide them. Our school motto is to work hard and play hard.
The accountability piece is not just about the students. It is also about the staff taking responsibility to not blame the students or their families, but to ensure that learning takes place and to make adjustments when it doesn't. As principal, I am driven by personal data. Each and every morning we get a list from the Teleparent phone system of who did not do their homework. These students are picked up before lunch and placed in study hall. During the first week of school, we had 250 kids per day going to study hall. Now we average fewer than 50 students per day. Accountability is knowing who every student is with a GPA below a 2.0 and having them attend the King Saturday Academy from 8 a.m. to noon. In three weeks, 40% of the students improved their GPAs and we had an attendance rate above 90%. Accountability is having every English learner who is on the cusp of being successful attend an extended day program after school with highly qualified credentialed teachers. I could go on and on about creating a system that holds students accountable and the kids rising to the occasion because they know we care.
Q: What instructional or curricular priorities in particular have been most important?
A: The most important instructional and curricular priorities are to create a safe environment to begin with, create double blocks of time in mathematics and language arts that challenge the students to think critically, and to make sure teachers focus on the process of ensuring learning with formative data versus the process of just teaching and depending upon summative data.
Q: What challenges has your middle school faced, or does it still continue to face, in these efforts?
A: The biggest challenge our school faces when trying to implement our plans is the impact the budget crisis has on increasing class sizes, which are upwards of a 39-to-1 student-to-teacher ratio. How does a teacher with 39-plus students per class for six periods make personal connections and meet everyone's needs?
Q: What resources, whether inside or outside the school, have been most important?
A: The most valuable resource in the school has been the establishment of a professional learning community where the cultural shift fosters teams to develop short-term SMART Goals (Mike Schmoker), a collaboration mentality based on using formative data to drive our instruction and the empowerment of colleagues as part of the leadership's decision-making practices.
Q: What role does data disaggregated by student subgroup play in your middle school's efforts to support student achievement, including among African American students?
A: Using disaggregated student data on a frequent basis (for example, every six weeks) is a critical piece for both teachers and the administration so that we know exactly how students are performing and what they need help with. It lets us know who is learning and who is not learning the prioritized curriculum standards. This helps us to know what needs to be re-taught and where we should align additional resources (for example, tutoring, support teachers, extended day programs, etc.).
Q: In what way does the demographic mix of your middle school's student population pose challenges or opportunities for supporting African American student achievement?
A: Fortunately, Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School has a wonderful blend of students from different ethnic, cultural, and socioeconomic backgrounds. We see this as an opportunity for our students to celebrate their differences and come together as a total school community. For example, our multicultural dance club epitomizes this celebration and brings the whole school together.
Q: Algebra I has been an intense focus of attention in recent years in California. How has your middle school responded to the idea that all students take Algebra I in grade 8, and what sort of credentials do the teachers who provide these courses hold?
A: Requiring all students in 8th grade to take Algebra I is absolutely challenging. Most of us did not take algebra until high school. The good news is that by holding high expectations and giving students the time and support they need, most students can do quite well. At King, we have close to 50% of our 8th grade students performing at the "proficient" or "advanced" level on the California Standards Test. In addition, another 28% of our students scored in the "basic" level, which is still quite good. This is double the state average, and more than 50% of our African American students scored at the proficient or advanced level.
For the 22% of students scoring "below basic," we need to continue to work on how to support them, which is a difficult issue. We start by requiring all of these students to take a double block of mathematics (96 minutes per day), which allows teachers more time to instruct, model, and provide guided practice time. Teachers assigned to these students only teach three groups of students instead of six. They have fewer students per day, which goes back to the personal connection issue. We also use categorical monies to hire an additional math instructor so we can reduce class size for these critical classes. In addition, once the year gets started, we hire young teachers in training in "support teacher" positions who work with students in small group settings with the regular classroom teacher. Once this is set up, we organize the lunch time tutoring and provide after-school programs, the Saturday Academy, etc. Finally, at the semester, we reconfigure the schedules of the students who are struggling the most and provide a "looping" model of instruction where they go back to the first semester concepts and try to bridge forward to end-of-the year expectations. These students will definitely repeat algebra in the 9th grade at the high school.
Q: What electives does your middle school offer and why? Do these courses support student engagement or other academic coursework?
A: While we value electives at King, we have made language arts and mathematics a priority. Students who are not proficient or advanced in mathematics are automatically assigned a second "strategic" period of mathematics as their elective. Those who are proficient or advanced in math can take band, orchestra, chorus, art, computers, AVID, journalism, or ASB [Associated Student Body]. Note that students who are not proficient can challenge to take a course with a student and parent contract. Some people don't like this plan, but the message at King is that if you want an elective, you need to achieve grade-level expectations in mathematics, which we believe is the gateway to college.
Q: Besides replacing electives with second "strategic" periods, what are some other ways that your school maintains high expectations about student achievement?
A: An effective school must have a clear vision of where they are going, defined values about their purpose, and guiding principals who act on these ideas and are able to make critical decisions. Establishing high expectations starts with leadership and is an ongoing process. For me, it was initially earned with a can-do attitude about noninstructional issues. For example, eliminating gum, eliminating chaos at lunch and dismissal, installing a disposal in the lounge, providing every teacher with an LCD and ELMO projector, and reducing discipline issues by 70% in one year. Now it is translating into teaching practices, such as greeting your students at the door, systematically checking for understanding, focusing on the essential standards, and having teachers use formative data to drive their instructional programs.
From the student perspective, every student now knows that gum, sweatshirts with hoods, and gang-related attire are not acceptable. Issues like fighting, weapons, and drugs are addressed with zero tolerance consequences. Almost every student now knows their CST [California Standards Test] scores in both math and language arts and their current six-week GPA. After each grading period, math teachers have each child calculate their GPAs. The two assistant principals and I then go around during the next few weeks with a clipboard and hand out coupons for a free, healthy, approved ice cream bar to the students who can tell us their correct GPA.
On the flip side, students with a GPA of less than a 2.0 absolutely know we expect more. The day before our first Saturday Academy, a young 8th grade Hispanic girl who received the notice about the King Saturday Academy approached me in the quad before school. She said: "Mr. Rowe, I got it figured out. I have a 1.8 GPA, and if I can get my algebra grade from a 'D' to a 'C,' I can get above a 2.0 GPA. Mrs. Haggerty [an 8th grade algebra teacher] said she will tutor me at lunch on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and I know I can do it." Hallelujah! The young lady knew where she stood, had a goal, figured out a strategy to get help, and believed in herself. Isn't this what it is really all about?
Q: What support or guidance counseling do students receive at your middle school to help them make decisions about which courses to take and about the directions they might take in high school, such as career-technical education, a traditional college-prep curriculum, and so forth?
A: We fortunately still have three full-time counselors who work directly with the students to set up their schedules, counsel them regarding middle school issues, and advise them about high school (for example, "a-g" requirements) and even college requirements. As part of AB 1802, counselors meet one-on-one with every 7th grader and their family. In addition, all counselors, administrative staff, and resource teachers personally mentor 10 to 20 at-risk students per week. The program is called "FINAO," which stands for Failure Is Not An Option.
Q: What support and leadership does your district provide?
A: The Oceanside Unified School District supports the sites by facilitating a focus on a common standards-based curriculum, common assessments, and a common pacing guide. They also provide a large amount of professional development opportunities and continually advocate the use of research-based best practices (for example, Robert Marzano). They also support our professional learning communities.
Q: What would you hope California policymakers, educators, and the public would understand about the academic achievement of the state's African American students?
A: I hope policymakers and the public understand that African American students are absolutely capable of succeeding at the highest levels in our schools. They need a system that provides personal connections and flexible time, and that supports the use of ongoing formative data to drive the instructional program week by week. They also need school partnerships with families and the community.
Q: Is there anything that we haven't talked about that you think is important for us to know about your school or your students?
A: The last concept I'd like to share is what I call "front-loading." While it is easier to implement at the elementary level, it can still work at the middle school. We identify at-risk students, say in mathematics. We set up after-school tutorials in small groups of around 10 students, and the teacher teaches the next day's lesson ahead of time. These students then get into class the following day and are able to fully participate, raise their hand, contribute, build self-esteem, and master the concept. We had the highest percentage of African American male students score proficient or advanced on math California Standards Tests in San Diego County using this strategy.
We identify at-risk students throughout the year, prioritize our most critical target groups, and align all available resources to support them. We start in the summer with the breakdown of the state STAR test results by grade, by subject, by teachers, by subgroups. All students not proficient in mathematics take a double block of mathematics as their elective. Every student takes a double block of English/language arts, and students are organized into benchmark, strategic, or intervention classes. Once we are up and running, we start asking questions, such as who are our English learners just below the proficient bar and what kind of support can we provide them? We conceptualize a program, organize staffing, notify parents, set up busing, provide snacks, and just do it. Then we organize systematic lunch time tutoring that is clearly scheduled and communicated with parents. As the year progresses, the lunch time tutoring changes from voluntary to mandatory depending on student performance.
This article is a transcript of an interview conducted by EdSource staff in May 2008.
The opinions in this interview are those of the principal, and not necessarily those of EdSource, its staff, its funders, or its Board.