I have been reading blogs for over a year now.. not very long, but long enough to have a profound affect on the conversation that I am having regarding my teaching and learning.  And, since I was named Time Magazine’s Person of the Year (I am in good company b/c we are all Person of the Year this year) this year, I figured today was as good a day as any to start my own conversation.

So here is what I would like to start with and it is one that is personal to me and my particular teaching situation.  Our local paper has recently taken up the cause of defining "What’s the matter with middle school?".  Now, there are many challenges at school, no more or less than when I taught high school, it’s just different.  The main focus of the article was related to the competition generated by the local charter schools and why so many kids of middle school age are clamoring to get into charters rather than the public middle schools, one of the public schools being where I teach.  The article included such lines as

Other parents of seventh and eighth-graders say they are worried about safety and academic rigor in the two main Flagstaff Unified School District middle schools. The result has been a drop of nearly 200 students this year at those schools, or close to 12 percent.

Meanwhile, enrollment in charter and private middle schools in Flagstaff continues to surge to more than 400 this year.

And the vast majority of the students attending charter and private middle schools are from white, middle- to upper-middle-class neighborhood schools.

Now, I like small schools and I even like the idea of charter schools.  But, in our community the charters have become an excuse for segregating kids.  Our community chooses to segregate their kids into schools based on affluence and try to pawn it off on school choice.  The charters in our area do not provide busing or lunch. Taking away access to busing and free/reduced lunch inherently limits the type of child that attends. 

To make matters even more ridiculous, the editorial staff of the paper followed the original feature story with the lead on the opinion page.  Let’s just say it didn’t exactly improve upon the first story. 

…the standards and the choices have changed. Parents don’t want their children to have to endure two years that they remember as difficult. The local charters and private schools, which are smaller and more homogenous, are seen as safe ports in a storm. Given the choice of postponing the bigness, diversity and conflicting choices that come with high school, more than 400 local parents are taking it.

charter students are there by choice, whereas public schools must take the unmotivated, the unruly and the unprepared.  Given those handicaps, it’s a wonder that test scores in FUSD middle schools still top the state average by a considerable margin.

School_06_094One of my students took particular offense to the unmotivated, the unruly and the unprepared comment. 

In attempting a response to the paper, I was at a loss becausewhat strikes me is that they miss the picture by so far that I don’t even know where to start, it’s like we are speaking different languages.  These are kids… KIDS… not lepers or aliens… a community that invests in these kids will get their return back in spades.  Our community does not choose to invest… they choose segregation over the more difficult task of integrating a community of learners.  This community is getting what they want, segregated schools with the illusion that cleaner/safer is less danger to their kids.  We need something to fear and right now that is the big bad middle school.  The community chooses to see the middle schools as bad because it makes them comfortable in their decision to send their kids to ‘white flight’ schools. We need to look at the larger societal problems that feed fear and ignorance when it comes to our middle schools.  We need to try and get the community to embrace these kids as part of the community rather than THOSE kids, problem kids… Where are the after school programs for middle schoolers, where are affordable activities for middle schoolers, where are the volunteers that are dying to be a part of the elementary school, but fall away in the middle grades?

How does a person move a diverse community towards embracing all the kids, rather than choosing a ‘homogenous’ school setting and further exacerbating the societal problems that cause the fear in the first place?  My answer is by working in the public middle school, providing a safe environment for a community of diverse learners and engaging them in a dialougue about community issues, including race and ethnicity.  Because in the end, it will be up to the kids sitting in those desks to address the problems that we create today. Hopefully, they will do better.