Embracing the Whole Child in the Middle Grades
Post written by Rick Allen and was originally featured in Education Update.
When the community of O'Fallon, Ill., decided that it needed a second middle grades school to serve a growing population, district education leaders saw it as an ideal opportunity to construct a whole child school from the ground up. In fall 2009, the Amelia V. Carriel Junior High School received its first enrollment of more than 700 6th, 7th, and 8th grade students who, like their teachers, were delighted by the state-of-the-art facility.
ASCD began the Whole Child Initiative three years ago to refocus the conversation among state and national policymakers on more integral ways to view learning and reform education. Nancy Gibson, superintendent of O'Fallon School District No. 90 and a current ASCD board member, explains that Carriel Junior High adopted the whole child design and instructional strategy to meet the academic, physical, psychological, and social needs of its young adolescents. To prevent reducing schooling to a narrow focus on curriculum and test scores, a whole child approach promotes the development of children who are healthy and safe in the school environment, engaged in learning and community life, supported by caring and qualified adults, and challenged academically so that they can succeed in college and the workplace.
Gibson says she used home visits, coffee klatches, and other public meetings to engage parents in understanding the importance of addressing all aspects of students' learning through the whole child education approach. The district serves 3,500 students in five elementary schools and two junior high schools.
School Design Reflects Student Needs
The physical environment of Carriel Junior High reflects the core elements of the whole child approach. "We wanted the building to be designed around educating the body, mind, and spirit: the 'mind' being the academic wing; the 'body' being where physical education, fitness, nutrition, and health are taught; and the 'spirit' being the inner core of the building—which has a theater; rooms for art and music, band, and chorus; and the library," Gibson explains. The school's painting scheme also reflects the different aspects of a student's entire learning experience: blue-green and copper represent the mind, eggplant tones for the body, and gold for the spirit.
Gibson views the school's central core as the hub that ties together all three areas. For example, the combination cafeteria/theater, called a theatorium, seats 500 in three terraces before a stage and also provides a much-needed public space for community groups and school events. For example, last fall the junior high jazz band held a junior high-senior citizens swing dance and jazz concert that had both groups dancing.
Preparing Students for the 21st Century
At the national level, middle grades advocates are reminding policymakers that their grade levels should be recognized as the crucial bridge between elementary school and high school. Because students often become disaffected with school in the middle grades, resources spent on promoting and implementing best practices at the middle school level positively impact high school outcomes, experts say (See the July Education Update article, "Caught in the Middle").
With an eye to their students' futures, O'Fallon school officials sought to promote and hone 21st century workplace skills such as teaming, speaking and presentation, and interdisciplinary studies. Carriel Junior High has 21st century rooms with computer projection screens on the first floor linked to each grade-level wing. With lots of windows to let in natural light and located to face the wooded area and creek behind the school for access to outdoor education opportunities, the oversized 21st century rooms can serve two or more classes for interdisciplinary lessons.
In addition, teachers undergo extensive professional development that combines training in integrating technology and workshops in backward curriculum design and differentiated instruction. The technology training allows teachers to check out and use devices such as interactive whiteboards and tablet PCs and other wireless devices to drive and enhance their lessons in the 21st century rooms, Gibson says.
Interdisciplinary teacher teams plan weekly. To emphasize the importance of collaboration, teachers' personal desks, file cabinets, and computers are located in teacher planning rooms.
"The best thing you can do is to get professional educators to sit down and talk about kids on a regular basis," says Carriel principal Douglas Woods.
Previously, principals received training to foster professional learning community staff development. The district has also laid the groundwork for a response to intervention model, to start in the fall, that will emphasize teaming, data-based decision making, and collaboration on monitoring and interventions for students.
Seeking School Equity
Edward A. Fulton Junior High School, O'Fallon's other middle grades school that was built 10 years, also underwent a $2 million remodeling to mirror aspects of the new sister school, Gibson says. Fulton students are now clustered into grade-level "houses," and teacher teams have common planning time. Like Carriel, Fulton also has a new communications lab, which will allow students to create television and video projects, and separate grade-level computer labs.
"Our parents wanted equity, and we did too, for the kids," Gibson explains. In O'Fallon both middle grades schools engage parents, expand students' learning opportunities, and provide innovative and creative strategies for reaching and teaching the whole child.
Photos by Mark Ballogg