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Friday, August 2, 2013

Highlands Middle School Brings Back "Teaming"

By Lisa Birkley
FortThomasMatters, FTIS Reporter

Middle school is a time of wonder, exploration and learning.  Who are we kidding; middle school can be the most confusing time of our lives.  Physical, emotional, and social changes are all occurring at once, and these young people have to learn how to handle themselves in a variety of situations.  Oh the drama. But there are changes on the horizon for Highlands Middle School (HMS) that might just make this tumultuous time a little easier for the students.  Teaming is coming back to HMS.

Middle school is a unique time in a student’s academic career. The students are not little children, but not yet full fledged teenages.  They are at all different levels of maturity and learning.  They need some special consideration and guidance.  Teaming is a way to meet those needs.

Mr. Gene Kirchner, Superintendent, explained it this way,

“There is a great deal of evidence to support the use of vertical and/or horizontal teams in schools. In his book Results Now, Mike Schmoker, argues that education is one of the only remaining professions in which individuals often work in relative isolation from their peers. In most other professions it is more likely that individuals work together in teams to determine goals, develop and share strategies, and measure outcomes. When faced with a serious health issue we would much prefer a team of physicians working on our behalf rather than single doctor who does not consult with others. Likewise, our students can benefit greatly from having a team of teachers working together for their benefit. When utilized effectively, school based teams provide a mechanism for the advancement of student achievement. I am very pleased that Highlands Middle School will be utilizing this approach.”

Teaming is not a new concept, in fact, when the middle school first opened its doors back in 2000, the curriculum was based on teaming.  The architects had the teaming concept in mind while designing the building.  The classrooms are actually constructed in “pods” where the four core subjects of English, math, history and science are grouped together.  It was set up for two teams per grade with each grade having its own floor.

The teaming concept is simple. Each grade is divided into two teams and the students all have the same group of core teachers. According to The Portsmouth Herald, the purpose of teaming has many benefits.  “These include student engagement, improved relationships between teachers and students, small collaborative teaching teams, and an integrated curriculum. Many of the founding principles of the middle school concept could be, and are, applied to all grade levels. They are simply good, sound educational practices” (Portsmouth Herald, November 19, 2006, Middle School Concept Is Best Model).  Mr. Mark Goetz, Principal, summed up the benefits of teaming in the following list:

·      The master schedule is developed to:
·      Give students access to the total curriculum.
·      Let students explore many different areas through one-quarter Encore courses.
·      To give students that need remediation the ability to receive the remediation called for during the day.
·      The schedule is to be sustainable for at least five years.
·      To use the teacher resources available to us to the maximum capacity.
·      To introduce and develop 21st Century skills.
·      To have students be exposed to the Arts in a variety of ways.

The research is out there, and teaming does offer many benefits for the middle school students.
According to the teachers that were part of the original teaming, things were working.   Mr. Kevin Nieporte, science teacher, was part of the original faculty.  He said, “I liked being able to communicate easier with the other teachers on the team about a particular student’s needs of the day.  For example, if a student is having a rough day, I can easily let the others know.  Teams also provide more flexibility in the schedule.  If I have a lab and need more time with the students.  This holds true for assessments as well. If a couple of students need extended time, we can let them finish as the others more on.” 

However, teaming is expensive.

Because teaming requires more faculty to run, and since the biggest expense in any school system is teachers’ salaries, something had to be done to reduce operating costs.   HMS started phasing out the teaming concept in 2007. Last year the teaming concept was completely gone.  However, HMS teachers never gave up the hope that it could come back if the money was available again.  At times teachers felt disconnected from the students and other grade level teachers, and parents felt disconnected from teachers.

In 2011, Mr. Mark Goetz, Principal and Dr. Dawn Laber, Assistant Principal, took over the administration at HMS.  Both were interested in finding a structure that would work with the needs of the faculty, students and parents.  It needed to be something that would last, so the administration looked to the past for a future solution.  They decided to go back to teaming.  Mr. Goetz said, “In the past the HMS schedule had not allowed the above points to all be met.  Some Encore classes were four weeks or five weeks or nine weeks or 18 weeks.  The Encore classes are now one quarter long, except for band and strings in grade six and seven and band, strings, chorus, journalism, Spanish and German in grade eight.  All of these courses are year-long Encore classes.”        

There were still some barriers to going back to teaming.  Money was still an issue. How could the district afford the extra staffing it would take?

That is where the administration had to get creative. There needed to be six teachers for each core subject.  Teachers with dual certification were shifted to new disciplines.  In the past model, teachers were giving an “extra planning period” each day to meet with their teams and conference about the students.  Mr. Goetz went to teachers and asked if they could forego the extra planning and give up one planning hour a week to meet with teams.  The teachers were willing.

“I think the best part will be that teaming will ensure a smoother transition for incoming sixth graders.  They will spend the majority of the day in their area of the building with the same teachers and classmates,” said Mrs. Sally Brewer, sixth grade language arts teacher.  In addition, teachers were asked to teach some classes focused on reading or remediation.

Again, they agreed. These two changes would allow HMS to go to teaming without the need for additional teachers, and no additional money.

Although the price was right, there was one addition roadblock to teaming, HMS shares several encore teachers with the Highlands High School (HHS).  Classes such as drama, art, careers and consumer science, media, keyboarding, band, strings and chorus had to be carefully scheduled.  At that point, Mr. Brian Robinson, HHS principal, was brought into the planning.  With a spirit of great cooperation, the schedule started to take shape.  The key was scheduling encores at very specific times.  For example, the six graders will only have encores during first and second periods, the seventh grade will have encores during fifth and sixth periods and the eighth grade will have encores during third and fourth periods.

When teaming was tried in the past, one complaint from parents and students was that the teams were “segregated” from each other.  If a student were on team one, he or she would not interact with any students from team two during the school day.  To combat this problem for next year, the two encores period will not be based on teams; they will consist of students from both teams based on the student’s preference. For example, Johnny was on team one and Bobby was on team two.  They would not have their core classes together, but they could possibly have band, health or any encore class together. Additionally, each grade will have the same lunchtime.  So for example, Johnny and Bobby will have lunch together.

If there is one downside to teaming, it will be the increase in class size.  In any given team, there will be approximately 120-140 students. The class size will be approximately 27-31 students.  The incoming sixth grade class is likely to be one of the largest classes to come through the middle school.  Mrs. Brewer shares this concern.  She said, “The sheer number of students in each class will be a challenge.  With 30 to 31 students in a class it will be difficult to manage and hard to give each student attention.” 

However, the class sizes were going to be big no matter what the curriculum.  It was estimated that the classes would swell to 26-29 students per class.  The administration and teachers decided that having two additional students per class was worth it for teaming.  In addition, the data coming from the elementary indicates that the class sizes are going down.  As always, population size will ebb and flow. The middle school will be bulging for the next few years and then shrink back to more manageable class sizes.

In the end, teaming will bring many positive benefits to the students.  Mr. Goetz said, “Months and months of work, meetings, getting input and revising were put in to make a schedule at HMS that will give a world-class education to ALL of our students; we believe we have done that.”

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