While the invited guests found seats and leafed through information packets, Robert Thorpe sat down in his own office to discuss the challenges of middle school. As principal since 2005, Thorpe has perspective on both the institution and the social and academic transformation of students as they progress from sixth to eighth grade.
Chief among the themes in the middle school experience are parents’ anxiety, the adjustment to a bigger, more populous school and students’ shifting allegiance from adult authority to peer group influence.
Along with these customary issues, Thorpe will manage some important changes in the next school year. Shamrock will add 183 students from Avondale Middle School, which is closing, but lose rising sixth graders from which will now feed into .
Soon to be known officially as Druid Hills Middle School, Shamrock Middle draws students from Briar Vista, Fernbank, , and elementary schools. Groups that have been together for many years often find it hard to break free of cliques and forge new friendships. Encouraging them to do so comfortably is central to the mission of all middle schools.
Incoming Shamrock Middle students have the opportunity to meet each other and their new teachers, learn how to operate a locker and sit through a few classes at Camp Dragon, a one-day program Thorpe created in 2006. Shamrock Middle’s assistant principal, Keidra Taylor, organizes the event with support from assistant principals Jacqueline Taylor and David Johnson.
Camp Dragon is the most intensive middle school orientation in DeKalb County. Participating students, usually about 170 out of a class of 300, are appointed “ambassadors” for the first day of school and wear T-shirts that confer their status. Last year, with support from the PTSA, parents joined their children at the event.
It’s a long way from a century ago when the superintendent of schools in Berkeley, CA, established an “intermediate school” for grades seven, eight and nine. The school, which had the added benefit of relieving an overcrowded high school, would enable “gradual transition to high school and serve as a vehicle of differentiation,” Superintendent Frank F. Bunker said.
By 1916, the school now known as junior high was “sweeping the United States,” according to the president of the National Education Association. Superintendents, consultants and education professors developed what would be known as the 6-3-3 plan.
Before the establishment of the junior high school, students attended eight years of elementary school and four years of high school, and even earlier six years of elementary school and three years of high school.
The idea of separating “pubescents” grew out of the progressive education movement which transformed the public schools during the first half of the 20th century. Foremost, the growing recognition of adolescence as a time of profound social and psychological change led educators to consider providing special attention to this age group in a smaller setting.
They were influenced by the work of G. Stanley Hall, a developmental psychologist and the first president of Clark University who published Adolescence: Its Psychology and Its Relation to Physiology, Anthropology, Sociology, Sex, Crime, Religion and Education in 1904. Not surprisingly, the book was published in two volumes.
“Storm and stress,” a term popularized by Hall, came to characterize the three hallmarks of adolescence: conflicts with parents, mood changes, and risky behavior. These endure today, of course.
Educators also believed that the junior high school would be an opportunity for differentiation, which essentially meant tracking students according to aptitude, ambition and “future prospects” (read: class, race and ethnicity). Along these lines, schools augmented the academic curriculum with what were called practical subjects: business and commercial classes, household arts and industrial arts.
Today, Shamrock Middle students who wish to consider a profession may use a software program called Career Cruising. But career guidance is not a part of the middle school mission although Pathways to Prosperity, a Harvard study released in February, urges that middle school students consider whether they want to attend college or pursue vocational training through high school.
The middle school movement began in 1963 when Professor William Alexander, chair of the department of education at Peabody College, proposed modifications to the junior high school, notably an emphasis on values and character development, exploratory classes that would supplement the core and a faculty committed to working with adolescents.
Shamrock Middle is an International Baccalaureate (IB) school, a designation that Thorpe pursued as his first priority when he arrived at the school. The IB program is an interdisciplinary approach to teaching and learning contained in three curricular units spaced through the year. The units introduce students to economics, politics and social and environmental issues worldwide.
The Feb. 14 “chocolate” unit has always been a favorite at Shamrock, provoking discussion of fair trade practices, child labor and the farming and export of the cocoa bean.
But before they get to the chocolate, the new sixth graders need to learn how to open their lockers.