A centerpiece of the upcoming district reorganization is the shift towards a grades 6-8 middle school model to support early adolescent development. In support of this effort, the district joined the New England League of Middle Schools (NELMS), the most influential organization in the region, to help guide our efforts. This change is not in name only. The move to a comprehensive middle grades structure is complex and challenging. It is a challenge, however, worth tackling.
Member district belonging to NELMS have embraced the research and experiences that emerged through work originally begun by the Carnegie Corporation, a foundation established by Andrew Carnegie. Its seminal publication in the late 1980’s, Turning Points: Preparing American Youth for the 21st Century, re-conceptualized the educational environment of early adolescents. The follow up publication Turning Points 2000: Educating Adolescents in the 21st Century is the framework through which the Dracut Public Schools re-imagines our middle school.
The goal of ensuring success to every student enrolled in our new middle school will be expressed and accomplished through the tenets of the Turning Points design:
- Teach a curriculum grounded in rigorous, public academic standards for what students should know and be able to do, relevant to the concerns of adolescents and based on how students learn best.
- Use instructional methods that prepare all students to achieve higher standards and become lifelong learners.
- Staff middle grades schools with teachers who are expert at teaching young adolescents, and engage teachers in ongoing, targeted professional development opportunities.
- Organize relationships for learning to create a climate of intellectual development and a caring community of shared educational purpose.
- Govern democratically, through direct or representative participation by all school staff members, the adults who know the students best.
- Provide a safe and healthy school environment as part of improving academic performance and developing caring and ethical citizens.
- Involving parents and communities in supporting student learning and healthy development.
To tackle the myriad challenges in opening our new middle school in September, I first started by making the Dracut Public Schools an active member of NELMS. Second I appointed current Englesby Intermediate School Principal Maria McGuinness to the position of Principal of the soon to be middle school effective July 1, 2014. In the interim Ms. McGuinness is working closely with NELMS in guiding our transition and supporting the work that is now occurring: the active engaged work of a steering committee and associated subcommittees, each of which is tasked with addressing one of the Turning Points tenets
One of the primary challenges Ms. McGuinness and the various committees have is the process of questioning and examining every aspect of our current intermediate/junior high school model. Nothing is too sacred so as to be unquestioned. The steering committee and its subcommittees, made up of over 30 (and growing) teachers and administrators, are actively engaged in pedagogical inquiry for the ultimate purpose of ensuring that we provide a robust and valuable middle school experience to our students.
Additional work is also ongoing related to other aspects of our school system, as the middle school will not exist in isolation. David Hill, the Director of Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment, is working with Ms. McGuinness to ensure continuity between the elementary schools and Dracut High School. This work includes external sources and coordination and guidance from the department heads at Dracut High School to ensure that we position our students for success at Dracut High School and in their post secondary education.
In the coming months information will be provided as the committees conclude their inquiries and settle on structures for our new school. From inquiry, self reflection, and purposeful design will rise the stronger, more dynamic Dracut Public Schools.