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In Fight Against Dropouts, ‘The Meat Of The Sandwich Is Middle School’

In the battle to keep students in school, experts often target the ends of the educational spectrum: early childhood, when kids pick up basic skills, and high school, when most dropouts happen. But some are starting to look in a different direction – the middle.

“Really, the meat of the sandwich is middle school,” says Timothy Hise, the principal at Ann Richards Middle School in East Dallas. “And if we can make kids more successful at this level they’ll have those foundational skills and be prepared for higher level work in high school.”

Research shows Hise is on to something. The stats are dramatic:

  • One in four Texas kids drops out.
  • African Americans and Hispanics are roughly twice as likely to leave school without graduating than white students.
  • Studies also show that if educators focus on problems in middle school - usually grades 6, 7, and 8 – more students graduate high school.
  • If a student’s middle school attendance drops below 80 percent, or behaves badly, or fails a class, there’s a 75 percent chance that student will eventually drop out.

That last number comes from Kerri Briggs, director of education reform at the George W. Bush Institute. She’s more than a year into a multiyear, multischool project called Middle School Matters, designed to help educators find dropout solutions before high school. She says one solution is pairing adult mentors with middle school students.

Principal Tim Hise says that’s why every one of his nearly 1,000 middle school students has at least one adult role model. And he often looks outside the school for community mentors. As far away as a local golf course.

“And the kids, when they went, they were skeptical,” Hise says. “Most of them, if at all, never had any exposure or interest in golf.  I was informed that when they came back they wanted to go on their own. They could partner up with the golf instructor. They teach them golf, but they teach them good character and sportsmanship at the same time.”

Sixth-grader Isaiah Smith is one of the kids who’d never played before.

“That’s what’s really fun, because I don't know how it might turn out,” he says.

Another technique that Hise’s school uses is the “advisory class.” Once a week, each teacher has a smaller class, 15 to 17 students.

“We discuss different things in that class, such as college-ready skills, and behaviors,” Hise says. “The more developmental assets, they have, the more likely they are to experience success in life.”

Principal Hise knows his kids face challenges. The new middle school principal runs a brand new campus, with lots of first-year teachers including many from Teach for America. He calls himself an old-school educator who’s wanted to teach middle school – just like his mom - since he was 5, But he also embraces modern education reforms championed by the Bush Institute.

“The conversation has to be about data,” Hise says. “We can talk about kids all day long. But the data typically doesn’t lie.”

And the data for his school is sobering: Ninety-nine percent of his students qualify for free or reduced lunch. Most are minorities. And his campus already starts “behind.” He says recent tests show his students fall 10 points below the district average, and Dallas Independent School District scores fall below the state average.

Hise says the challenge is huge. But he’s setting his sights high.

“Our goal is to move kids ahead two grade levels in reading in one year’s time,” he says.

Otherwise, Hise fears his kids won’t learn what they need to set that solid middle school foundation necessary to graduate high school.