Science teacher Gwen Holmesley’s sixth-grade class at Aprende Middle School is learning what it might be like to be birds during a recent morning session.
Using tweezers, toothpicks, clothespins and straws, the students at the Kyrene Elementary District school in Chandler determine which tool would work best to pick up beans or colored water.
This lesson in natural selection shows students how birds’ beaks have adapted over time to help them compete for food.
The activity is completed easily within the 68 minutes Holmesley has to work with the students, but not too long ago it would have been a more difficult task to squeeze in the lecture and the experiment.
Three years ago, the Kyrene district began its Middle School Model program, changing schedules and the way teachers and students are teamed throughout the school day.
Expanding the amount of time teachers in science, math, language arts and social studies spend with students has been beneficial to the teachers in those subjects, according to the teachers themselves and the district’s administration.
“We do a lot of labs and activities that take up time,” Holmesley said. “With this new schedule, we’re not having to interrupt and then re-establish what is going on the next day. It makes a lot more sense to students.”
Holmesley, a 16-year educator, said the school’s former 45-minute periods made teaching difficult.
“It was the shortest I had ever taught and it was tough to get things done,” she said. Initially, some teachers were worried about filling the time in the extended periods, but she said they adjusted quickly.
“It was not difficult for me at all,” she said. “This was the way it should have been done all along.”
The district will begin researching the middle school model this school year to determine how it’s working. It will look at test scores over the last three years, as well as surveys and other data to determine whether the district has been able to improve student achievement, increase teacher satisfaction, save money and reduce discipline problems by switching to the middle school model.
David Garcia, assistant professor at Arizona State University’s College of Education, is conducting the research.
“What Kyrene is doing is rare and has quite a bit of foresight,” he said of how the district has implemented the changes and is researching the results, with the help of the community.
“What usually happens is that someone comes in, takes a look around and then goes away and does the research,” he said. Instead, in Kyrene people are being asked for their input as to what should be assessed, so that there’s no disputing what’s been measured after release of the final report.
By the end of the school year, Garcia hopes to have outcomes of the project finalized, with a final report expected in fall 2008.
Kyrene had junior high schools until the late 1980s when, along with many schools in the U.S., it switched to a middle school system.
Superintendent David Schauer, who was a middle school principal at the time, said there were problems with that system, too, because schedules were so different from school to school.
“In some schools, kids were getting significantly more language arts than in other schools, for instance,” he said. “That was a big problem.”
In the early 1990s, they addressed that problem by moving to the same schedules but still found major differences between schools when it came to how many teachers were sharing the same group of students. Some students moved among as few as two teachers, while others could move among as many as six.
The new Kyrene Middle School Model ensures students have a uniform experience no matter what school they attend. Teams of four teachers share 120 students and each core subject is taught during an extended instructional period.
There have been some problems with the new system that have already been addressed.
For example, the schools began having an academic lab period under the new scheduling, but Schauer said a fair number of teachers didn’t have any idea of what to do with it.
“We didn’t provide much in the way of guidelines, but we’ve since addressed that,” he said.
Also, students went from having their elective courses — things like music and art — every day, to having electives rotated every other day. Schauer said this initially upset some teachers, particularly orchestra instructors, who argued that students needed daily practice to improve.
The research will show if there are any other problems with the model that need to be addressed, but Schauer said the district is committed to sticking with the new way of doing business in Kyrene.
“Ultimately, this is about having smaller teams, with fewer students and teachers who intimately know kids,” he said. “We’ll be looking forward to the findings of this research, but we plan to continue with this model, even if we have to make adjustments based on the research.”