Students sit in the cafeteria at Ranson Middle School in Charlotte. (Kelly Field for The Hechinger Report)
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — It was the end of the school day at Ashley Park PreK-8, in Charlotte, North Carolina, and the yellow buses were just pulling up in front of the red brick building. The kindergartners, with their cartoon backpacks and cornrows, filed out first, followed by the first through fifth graders.
Then, from the side of the school, the “big kids” came running, spilling from their modular middle school in headphones and hoodies to line up behind the younger children.
When Ashley Park was converted from an elementary school to a K-8 a decade ago, over the objections of the community, it was the bus ride, with its noisy, chaotic comingling of kids, that many parents feared the most. They worried that their younger children might be corrupted, bullied or worse.
But now the bus ritual has become routine, and many families here have come to embrace the K-8 model, with its smaller cohorts and sense of community. Four years ago, when district leaders asked Ashley Park parents and teachers if they wanted to go back to being an elementary school, their answer was an emphatic no.
“They said, ‘don’t do this to us again. Let us stay a family,’ ” said Meaghan Loftus, the principal at the time. “ ’Listen to us this time.’ ”
Ashley Park’s experience is not unusual. Over the past two decades, several urban school districts, including Baltimore, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Milwaukee, New Orleans, New York City and Philadelphia, have shuttered some middle schools and converted elementary schools into K-8s.
Proponents of K-8 schools, or “elemiddles” as they’re sometimes called, say they promote strong relationships between not only teachers and students but also teachers and parents and offer stability to young teens during a tumultuous time in their lives. They argue that early adolescence — a period marked by more rapid physical and cognitive development than any stage other than the first two years of life — is a terrible time to transition to a new school.
The recent conversions represent a return to old ways of educating early adolescents. Up until about 1900, the American education system operated on a two-tier structure, with eight years of primary school followed by four years of secondary school. More than a century of experimentation with the middle grades hasn’t provided much clarity about which configuration works best.
The research comparing outcomes of students at K-8 and middle schools remains inconclusive. While some studies have shown that students who move to a middle school experience steeper declines in academic achievement than those who stay put, other research has found few differences between the groups.
For many districts — Charlotte included — the decision to merge elementary and middle schools has been more expedient than philosophical, driven by space constraints and budget shortfalls rather than what’s best for students.
“The pendulum swings,” said David Rosenberg, a partner with Education Resource Strategies, a nonprofit that advises school leaders on resource use, the “research goes back and forth, and the districts go back and forth, but they’re not always thinking about how to create the conditions for success.”
Around the turn of the century, educators and psychologists started advocating for a reorganization away from the old primary school system. College presidents complained that the later years of primary school were wasted, and the National Educational Association published a report that called for college prep to start in the seventh grade.
The NEA argued that the seventh grade was a more natural turning point in a child's life, according to a 2004 book by The RAND Corporation, “Focus on the Wonder Years,” and that moving students more gradually from a single teacher to a system of special teachers would help prevent “the violent shock now commonly felt on entering the high school.”
About the same time, the prominent psychologist Stanley Hall was arguing that puberty was a distinct developmental phase that demanded new educational approaches. “The pupil in the age of spontaneous variation … suffers from mental ennui and dyspepsia, and this is why so many and an increasing number refuse some of the best prepared courses,” he wrote.
These concerns, coupled with crowding in primary schools — the result of an influx of new immigrants — led to the creation, starting around 1910, of standalone “junior high schools” for seventh through ninth graders.
But it quickly became clear that the junior highs weren’t living up to their promise. Instead of serving as a bridge to high school, they were operating as mini-high schools, with little attention paid to adolescents’ unique needs. Dissatisfaction with junior highs peaked in the 1960s, when William Alexander, chairman of the department of education at George Peabody College, proposed the creation of schools that would specifically cater to adolescents.
Meanwhile, secondary school enrollment numbers were shrinking, while elementary enrollments were exploding, due to the postwar baby boom. The resulting shortage of space in elementary schools led to sixth grade being pushed up into what would become known as “middle schools.” The new schools multiplied rapidly, displacing junior high schools. Between 1970 and 1980, the number of middle schools tripled, while the number of junior highs shrank by a quarter.
Yet, because many of the new middle schools had been built for pragmatic reasons, rather than ideological ones, they tended to resemble the junior highs they’d replaced. They were “middle schools in name only,” said Mary Beth Schaefer, an associate professor of adolescent education at St. John’s University.
By the 1980s, however, the middle school movement that Alexander started had solidified, coalescing around a set of practices, said Schaefer, who has studied the movement. These included interdisciplinary team teaching, flexible scheduling and the provision of regular academic and social-emotional advising to groups of students. Proponents argued that freestanding middle schools were the ideal setting for implementing such practices.
Then, in the 1990s, standardized testing revealed that most eighth graders weren’t proficient in math and reading and were falling behind their peers in other countries. Whether due to teacher resistance, or a lack of institutional support, middle schools had adopted the adolescent-focused reforms “at only superficial levels,” according to the RAND book. Critics once again declared middle school “a floundering ground,” “the wasteland of our primary and secondary landscape” and “holding pens for preadolescent children.”
If middle school is a time of tremendous turmoil, it’s also a time of tremendous opportunity. Phyllis Fagell, a school counselor and the author of “Middle School Matters,” calls it “the last best chance” to transform the trajectory of students.
“This is the age when they are the most malleable,” said Neodria Brown, the principal of Ranson Middle School, in West Charlotte, which serves grades 6-8. “This is the age when you can help them chart their course.”
While the transition to middle school can be tough on kids — “you’re not the head honcho anymore,” Brown explained — she doesn’t see much of a difference in the way adolescents are educated in a K-8 versus a standalone 6-8 school.
“There’s more opportunity to interact with younger children in K-8,” she said. “But middle school is middle school.”
Brown, who came home to Charlotte in 2018 after leading a school in Hilton Head, belies the idea that large middle schools must be more impersonal than smaller K-8s. Though her demeanor is no-nonsense and reserved, there’s a warmth underneath. The tattoo on her arm reads “Warrior,” but the notebook that she scribbles in has a kitten on the cover. In one corner of her office, there’s a decorated cart that she used to deliver donuts to her students on Valentine’s Day, with a sign reading “love train” affixed to it.
Walking the halls of her school, she stopped a pair of boys who were swearing. “Uh-uh, not today, not using profanity,’” she admonished them.
A few steps later, she stopped a girl to ask her if her mother was going to call.
She turned a corner and bent to collect a candy wrapper, handing it to another student to throw out.
A few more steps, and she picked up a pencil, asking a passing girl if she needed one. The girl took it.
Outside, some boys were goofing off. Brown got on her walkie talkie: “10-4, they should be in class. And can we get a sweep in the hallway?” The students had eaten lunch in class, and there were crunchy bits of Cheetos on the floor.
In the cafeteria, she talked to a girl who wanted to switch classes. At a table nearby, a girl with dreadlocks and a pink “Save Animal” sweatshirt sat alone, looking sad.
“Are you having a better day?” Brown asked.
“No,” the girl told her.
“Why?” asked Brown.
“People,” the girl responded.
“Some days are like that,” Brown said.
The girl came over to the principal, rested her head on her shoulder, and whispered in her ear.
Even with the recent resurgence of K-8s, middle schools outnumber “elemiddles” in the United States 2:1, federal data shows. Ten times as many eighth graders attend a middle school as attend a K-8.
In Charlotte, middle schools remain the most common configuration after a decade of experimentation. A decade ago, the school board decided to close three struggling middle schools in predominantly black West Charlotte and send their students to eight new K-8s. In an effort to sell the plan, supporters pointed to research on the benefits of the K-8 configuration. The new model, they argued, could raise achievement at the poorly performing West Charlotte schools.
But in reality, the decision was driven by financial considerations, not research on adolescent learning and development. The superintendent and his supporters on the school board said the move was necessary to save teacher jobs in the face of massive budget cuts.
“We were in the depths of a recession,” recalled Eric Davis, then the chairman of the board. “We were trying to do everything we could to avoid laying off hundreds of teachers.”
But not everyone on the board was convinced that the change would benefit the schools.
“If it was good for the one part of town, why wouldn’t it be good for the others?,” wondered Joyce Waddell, one of four members of the nine-member board who voted to block the closures. “It seemed a bit discriminatory. Why was this happening only to these inner-city schools?”
Denise Watts, who was a top administrator for the district at the time and now works for the University of Virginia advising districts on school reform, believes the board picked the West Charlotte schools over others on its initial list because “it didn’t want to risk social capital” closing schools in more affluent communities. The parents whose schools were closed reacted in fury, crying racism. They demanded to know why their schools were targeted, while undersubscribed and aging facilities in wealthier and whiter parts of the city were spared.
“It was very racialized,” said Watts. “It was the district doing unto the communities.”
To understand the uproar that surrounded the school board’s decision to close the West Charlotte middle schools, it helps to know a little bit about the district’s history.
In the mid-1960s, less than five percent of black children in Charlotte attended integrated schools. Then, a 1971 Supreme Court decision in Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education led to a citywide busing plan that became a model for districts nationwide. By 1980, the district’s schools were mostly integrated, and Charlotte was being called “the city that made desegregation work.”
But the plan didn’t hold. In the late 1990s, a white parent sued the district because he believed his daughter was rejected from a local magnet school because of her race. The district ended up adopting a “Family Choice” plan that was heavily based on neighborhood schools. Because most neighborhoods in Charlotte are segregated — the result of decades of housing discrimination — the schools resegregated.
When the district redrew its student assignment boundaries in 2017, the new superintendent proposed a do-over, asking the eight West Charlotte elementary schools that had been converted into K-8s to decide their futures. Three schools went back to being K-5, while five remained K-8.
But in Charlotte, at least, the switch to K-8 — and back, in those few cases — has had little impact on student achievement. Ashley Park and the other affected elementary and middle schools had low test scores and poor attendance rates before the 2010 decision, and they still do today. All but one is rated either “D” or “F” by the state.
Roslyn Mickelson, a researcher who has studied the impact of desegregation and resegregation on Charlotte’s schools, believes those outcomes say more about the demographics of the schools than the merits of either model. Even as they toggled between grade-span configurations, the West Charlotte schools remained segregated by race and income, populated almost exclusively by students who were Black and low income.
“The reason none of these reforms is effective is because they don’t address the underlying causes of low performance, and that is concentrated poverty,” she said.
Today, Black and Hispanic students in Charlotte are half as likely as white students to earn a college degree or credential within six years of enrolling, according to a recent report by WestEd. But the most discouraging statistic is this: Charlotte has the worst “intergenerational,” or socioeconomic, mobility of America’s 50 largest cities, according to an influential analysis by researchers at Harvard and Berkeley. Compared to children in other cities, kids born poor in Charlotte have the lowest odds of reaching the top quintile of earners in their lifetimes.
Educators on both sides of the K-8 vs. middle school debate agree that the sixth through eighth grades are a pivotal time for kids, a phase in their education when self-concepts are formed and habits are established that can set students up for either success or failure in high school and beyond.
Yet for many students, they’re a time of growing alienation from school, of disengagement and declining achievement.
While there are probably many reasons for this drop, one prominent theory holds that it is due to a mismatch between the social and emotional needs of 11- to-14-year-olds and the structure of their schools. Young adolescents crave connection and autonomy. Yet when they enter the middle grades, they are suddenly held to a rigid schedule, rotating among a cast of teachers unfamiliar with their backgrounds and learning styles. Recess is taken from them, leaving students with little unstructured time to work on their social skills.
“We micromanage them,” said Fagell, the author of “Middle School Matters.” “They are like salmon swimming upstream in the hallways, with maybe two minutes to go to the bathroom.”
Porscher Enoch, the former head of the parent teacher association at Ranson Middle School, in Charlotte, believes many students aren’t ready for the newfound responsibilities. “They go from being coddled to being thrown out there,” she said.
Switching schools before the sixth or seventh grade can compound the challenges students face in the middle grades, leaving them feeling “untethered from everything they know,” said Fagel, who is a counselor in a private school in Washington, D.C.
Calvin Duong, a tenth grader who attended a K-8 STEM-oriented school, said there were drawbacks to being with the same small group of peers all the time. “Sometimes, it’s like a dysfunctional family,” he said at a pre-pandemic meeting of the group.
Juliette Palacios Perez, an 11th grader who attended Waddell Language Academy through eighth grade, said she could have benefited from a fresh start in middle school. “I was bullied a lot in elementary school,” she said. “Sometimes I wish I could have gone to another school to start over.”
Students on the youth council who attended middle schools said the transition to a new school was rough – but ultimately worth it. “Sixth grade was like shock therapy,” said Gabe Schuhl, an 11th grader who attended Community House Middle School. “But by seventh grade, I made some of my best friends.”
Jean Rivera, a 12th grader who attended Mint Hill Middle, said advancing to a larger, more diverse school in sixth grade “was intimidating at first,” but taught him “how to get along with different types of people, to make new connections.”
He added, “If you never move, you won’t learn how to do that.”
Those who argue for a return to K-8 schools often point to the studies showing that students who attend such schools have higher test scores, better attendance rates and more self-esteem and feelings of competence than their middle school peers.
Researchers have attributed those findings, in large part, to the fact that students in K-8s aren’t asked to change schools when they’re at their most vulnerable. They can stick to a comfortable, familiar environment, remain “top dog” for longer, and continue relationships with teachers from the lower grades.
But many of the studies supporting K-8 schools have failed to control for student variables that could impact student achievement, such as poverty, or for families’ self-selection into certain types of schools. Other research has found that the achievement dips some students experience when they transition to middle school are temporary, and that attending a K-8 can have negative effects on elementary-aged students.
“We don’t have enough research yet to say everyone should go to one model,” said Jonah Rockoff, a professor of finance and economics at Columbia University whose own research has found that transitioning to middle school puts students on a downward path. “Neither is perfect. The jury is still out.”
Now, even the staunchest supporters of middle schools say that the movement’s best practices can work in any configuration. That acknowledgement led the National Middle School Association to change its name, in 2011, to the Association for Middle Level Education, Schaefer said.
“It’s not at all about what grades are in the school building,” said April Tibbles, the association’s chief communications officer. “It’s about making sure the programs and practices are developmentally responsive to the needs of the young adolescent students.”
Surveys of parents find that a majority favor K-8 schools, believing they foster stronger bonds. They like that they’re located close to home and allow families with multiple children to remain in the same school for longer.
Yet principals prefer separate middle schools, seeing them as better suited to address the physical, intellectual and social needs of adolescents, a national survey found.
When Charlotte was debating the switch to K-8, in 2010, district leaders circulated a study that showed that students who attended Philadelphia’s established K-8 schools outperformed students at the city’s middle schools.
But that study contained a caveat: The established K-8s had fewer low-income and minority students and more experienced teachers than the middle schools. Students who attended the city’s newer K-8s, which were more similar demographically to the city’s middle schools, performed about the same as their middle school peers on math, and only slightly better on reading. The researchers concluded that “much of the old K-8 advantage clearly resides in the different student populations that are served by the old K-8 schools and middle schools,” and warned that “a district is not likely to replicate the K–8 advantage based upon size and school transition alone if its student population remains unchanged.”
That summed up the situation in Charlotte in 2010, where the schools that merged in 2011 were comprised almost entirely of low-income Black students.
“You’re putting low-performing schools together,” warned Waddell, who is now a state senator, at a 2010 school board meeting.
When the board reviewed outcomes at the eight merged schools in 2017, it found that the results were uneven. While some schools had seen proficiency gains in some subjects and grade spans, others had slipped in some areas, and all continued to perform well below the district average. The buildings, which were well below capacity in 2010, were now almost all overcrowded, with utilization rates ranging from 99 to 175 percent.
That troubled board member Ericka Ellis-Stewart, who urged the board to “look at this through the lens of a parent. Is this good enough for your child?”
She said, “If these schools were not full of children of color, our community would never stand for this, not in a million years.”
Davis, the board chair, agreed that the results were unacceptable, but said he wasn’t sure that changing the configuration of the schools would make a difference. “I think we all know the effect of poverty on our children’s education,” he said. “How do we know if we change the grade-level configuration, we’ll get different results?”
When then-Superintendent Ann Clark asked the eight K-8 schools whether they wanted to go back to a K-5 configuration, their answers — and the board’s response — differed. At Bruns Academy, located in a gentrifying neighborhood, a small but vocal coalition of newcomers argued that restoring the school to an elementary would encourage more affluent families to send their kids to the school.
The board agreed, and Bruns became an elementary school again last year. But when a similarly small and vocal group of parents — predominantly Black, in this case — fought to keep Reid Park Academy K-8, the board split the school anyway.
At Ashley Park, where parents pushed for the school to remain K-8, the transition in 2011 from an elementary school had been rough. The first day of school, one middle schooler got off the bus with “RIP Spaugh,” scrawled on his arm in marker, a tribute to his shuttered school, Loftus recalled. There was no gym for the middle schoolers, and few sports teams and extracurriculars. Spanish and other electives were limited, due to the small size of the middle school classes.
But by the time the board revisited its decision, six years later, things were looking up. The district had created some composite sports teams by combining interested students from separate schools, and voters had approved a bond for a middle school gym. Students were traveling to the high school to participate in band, and the school was sharing a middle school Spanish teacher with another K-8.
So when the board asked parents and teachers at Ashley Park for their preferences, they said they didn’t want another change.
Still, Ashley Park, like many K-8 schools, tries to keep the “little kids” and “big kids” as separate as possible. Middle schoolers aren’t allowed in the hallways dedicated to the lower grades, and they are never in the section of the school reserved for “specials” like health and music at the same time as the younger kids. For most of the day, they’re confined to the modular structures on the side of the school.
On a Wednesday in early March 2019, before the schools closed due to the coronavirus, a class of kindergartners practiced phonics inside the main building. “Say hop,” the teacher told the class gathered on a blue rug with lighter blue dots. “Hop,” the students dutifully repeated back.
“Now chop it, said the teacher, making a chopping motion with her hand. “huh-op.”
“Huh-op,” the kids echoed, mimicking the movement.
Meanwhile, in the middle school modular building, a class of seventh graders sat in clusters of four desks, studying geometry. “What did we find yesterday?” the teacher asked. “The diameter,” said one student.
“And that’s the distance from…?” the teacher prompted.
“Side to side,” replied another student.
Today, only five of the eight middle schools that the district opened in 2011 remain. But former top administrator Denise Watts doesn’t think that Charlotte — or any other city for that matter — is done experimenting with grade-span configurations. “One of the things I’ve learned is that change is the only constant,” she said. “I don’t know if we’ll ever reach a place of stability.”
Brown, the middle school principal, said she doesn’t believe there is a right or wrong configuration for kids. “It’s about the adults in the building,” she said.
“Kids do better with adults who care about them,” she said. “It doesn’t really matter what setting they’re in.”