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3 Fayette middle schools look for answers

State testing data showed elementary schools making great gains this year while progress dwindled at middle schools. It's a troublesome pattern found in Fayette County and throughout the nation.

"Part of it comes from a set of assumptions that policy makers and educators made that if we focus on the early grades, we'll get them on track and they'll be good to go," said Daria Hall, assistant director for K-12 policy at the Education Trust. "Education is not like inoculation."

Fayette County elementary schools all made gains — some by more than 20 points — in Commonwealth Accountability Testing System scores, with none scoring below 74. Meanwhile, two of the county's 12 middle schools saw their scores drop and a third school — Leestown Middle — posted a 66.2, the district's lowest score.

Statewide, the average elementary score in math was a 97, while the middle school average was an 84.5 out of a possible 140. The average elementary school science score was a 97.1 compared to the average middle school score of 89.1.

Experts cite a variety of reasons for the achievement gap between elementary and middle schools, including: low motivation in older students, low expectations from teachers and staff, less parent involvement, and teachers and administrators ill-equipped to deal with the middle school years.

Nationally, some schools are consolidating into K-8 while others are forming 7-12 schools to address problems at middle schools.

"There aren't any easy answers to it," said Lisa Gross, spokeswoman for the Kentucky Department of Education. Older students "don't feel that there is an impact on their lives in regard to state testing."

Joining Leestown Middle near the bottom of Fayette County's CATS scores is Tates Creek Middle, with a score of 69.7, and Crawford Middle, with a score of 69.2.

All these schools have high poverty, high minority student populations, meager parent involvement and transient student communities.

At Tates Creek, Principal Greg Quenon believes the school must replicate elementary school techniques to enjoy similar success. He is recruiting elementary teachers to tutor middle school students in math and reading and teachers are encouraged to hang student work in hallways — a site commonly found in elementary schools.

"I wish I would have thought about this several years ago," said Quenon. "What they're doing at elementary schools works."

CATS data shows that the only area where middle school students out-performed elementary students was in arts and humanities, with the average middle school score at 83.3 and the average elementary school score at 78.3. But arts and humanities count for much less of the overall score under CATS.

High schools across Kentucky are doing even worse than middle schools. The average high school math score this year was 67.4, compared to 97 out of 140 for elementary schools.

Still, several middle school officials said the strength of the elementary schools is beginning to trickle up to their level.

"We're seeing a stronger sixth-grade class than ever before," said Jennifer Kendall, principal at Leestown Middle.

Leestown and Tates Creek middle schools also have had several changes in leadership and high teacher turnover for the past few years.

Kendall was the associate principal at Tates Creek Middle for two years. She took over as Leestown principal this year, but the school hasn't had a stable principal in the last four years.

"Coming over here, you have the reputation, the stigma; but we have great kids," Kendall said. "I'm here for the long haul."

Over at Crawford Middle, Principal Joyce Florence has led the school for five years, but has worked at the school for more than two decades. While the school doesn't have problems with leadership changes, in a 20 day period the school has had 60 students enter and leave the school, Florence said. And, some students will leave and come back multiple times.

"We've got to know where those kids are," Florence said. "We've got to take them wherever they are when the come in the door. We've got to know what their skills are, we've got to know what their deficits are."

Crawford eighth-grade language arts teacher Laurie Goodlett has spent more than a dozen years teaching at the school. She said some teachers are at a loss as to what is needed to help students excel.

"We haven't figured out yet the exact why, but there are many of us that know our kids know more than what's being shown on the test," she said. "We are working so hard to try to find that."

She admitted that the middle school years are tough — on students and teachers.

"Middle school children are somewhat lost in that they're really trying to find themselves and what path they are wanting to take in life," she said.

Because of the issues plaguing middle school students, it's imperative that parents are involved.

Francine Walker, PTSA president at Leestown Middle, has been active at the school for three years. Her daughter, Meyasha Walker, 13, is in a school mentoring program, plays volleyball and basketball at school, participates in track and has maintained a 3.0 grade point average or higher every semester.

"We need more moms and dads to just show up and let the kids know they care," Walker said.

Meyasha said teachers could give harder lessons and push students more. She finds social studies difficult and favors math class, where she's currently learning trigonometry.

Still, she wouldn't go to another middle school if she had a choice.

"Leestown's a great school even though people think it's 'ghetto'," Meyasha said.

Amie Roberts said her years at Tates Creek Middle have been full of opportunity. She not only has great social studies and math teachers, she's participated in cheer leading and the volleyball team.

"I think our school has a lot of potential and I don't think people realize that," she said. "People already have an idea about our school but we have a lot to say."

Tina Moorhead, district PTA president and long time Tates Creek advocate, said parents are really the key when it comes to student achievement in middle schools. Middle school, she said, is known as the "trauma drama years."

"It's hard on the kids, it's even harder on the parents," she said. "But parents need to remember, yes they do need to let that child take that leap of faith but at the same time, the presence of having you at school is phenomenal."