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Middle school matters: what makes middle school special in BCPS


In honor of national Middle Level Education Month, this March we are taking a closer look at Baltimore County Public Schools’ wonderful middle schools. From March 2 through the end of the month, one or two school profiles will be posted each day. We begin the month with an overview of what makes middle school special in BCPS.


“The first thing that people need to know about middle schools is that they are not big elementary schools or small high schools,” says Dr. Penelope Martin-Knox. She and Dr. Marshall Scott are the assistant superintendents overseeing Baltimore County Public Schools’ 27 comprehensive middle schools.

Discussions about middle schools often focus on the challenges of educating students who are transitioning to adolescence. But in addition to the challenges, Martin-Knox and Scott also emphasize the tremendous growth opportunities during middle school and the many ways that BCPS supports the continued advancement of its middle school program.

At the beginning of this school year, for the first time ever, the assistant superintendents met with every Grade 6 BCPS student – that’s more than 8,000 students – to ask them about their expectations of middle school, initial impressions, suggested improvements, and advice for incoming middle school students.

What students liked most about middle school was “freedom” -- like not having to walk in lines, having some choices about which classes to take, and open seating at lunch. Students also appreciated the many after school activities and extra-curricular opportunities offered at their schools, more hands-on projects (especially in science), opportunities to re-do school work, and meeting new and often more racially and socio-economically diverse friends.

Following these in-person meetings, the assistant superintendents created a special e-mail address so that students could continue to directly share their thoughts, concerns, and ideas.

The BCPS Approach

“The expectations for middle school learning have increased greatly,” says Scott. “Some of the courses students used to take in high school, they are now taking in middle school. They are expected to cover more content and develop more skills at an earlier age.”

Martin-Knox adds, “The BCPS approach to middle school is to educate the whole child, addressing their emotional, social, psychological, and intellectual needs.”

A big part of middle school, according to Martin-Knox, is for students to “find out where they belong.”

Michelle Feeney, principal of Arbutus Middle School describes it this way, “We want every student to know that he or she is good at something. The more experiences we offer, the more chances our students have to figure that out. Trying to find yourself is the toughest part of middle school. It is hard to succeed in high school if you never felt like you belonged. We consider it our mission to be sure that every student is truly connected to school. The question we ask about every student is what is he or she good at and how can we make him or her famous [in our school community].”

At Catonsville Middle School one way they recognize more students is to celebrate not just those students who are on the honor roll but also those students who are “on a roll,” making substantial progress.

Changes students and families can see

Throughout Baltimore County, changes can be seen in the way middle schools operate and what they offer.

“Many schools have changed organizationally,” says Marshall-Scott, “by creating smaller learning communities and reconfiguring how the school building is used so that designated areas are specifically for Grade 6. This builds community among the Grade 6 students and facilitates the teachers working together more closely.”

This school year saw a number of firsts for BCPS middle schools. While the entire school system has been engaged in a transition toward student-centered learning, the S.T.A.T. (Students and Teachers Accessing Tomorrow) program moved into its first seven middle schools – Cockeysville, Dumbarton, Pikesville, Ridgely, Sparrows Point, Stemmers Run, and Windsor Mill. In these schools, this school year, instruction is supported by the use of one-to-one digital learning devices.

Another first has been offering world languages instruction for Grade 6 students at every middle school. This effort supports the BCPS goal of ensuring that every student graduates from high school proficient in a second language.

For six middle schools – Arbutus, Catonsville, Cockeysville, Holabird, Middle River, and Pikesville – this school year marked the beginning of a pilot program, “Effective Learning Habits for College and Career Readiness,” an elective course helps students develop soft skills – such as organization, study habits, communication, and collaboration.

While many middle schools offer specialized magnet programs, Old Court Middle School leaders and central office administrators have spent much of this school year preparing for a new health sciences magnet to be based at the school beginning in the fall. The rigorous academic program will feature authentic experiences through partnerships with health care providers and intensive classroom instruction in biological sciences, medical drawing, and world languages.

In keeping with the goal of helping each student find a special connection to school, athletics at the middle school level have expanded in recent years from just basketball to also include track and field, cross country, badminton, and tennis.

Work behind the scenes

Much of the work to improve middle schools takes place behind the scenes based on proven research about middle school learning.

“This year,” Scott describes, “we started providing a professional development program called Middle School Matters that addresses the social, emotional, psychological, and physiological changes that middle school students go through. We engaged principals, assistant principals, school counselors, and Grade 6 teachers in this learning opportunity.

“We also,” he continues, “had middle school counselors work with elementary school counselors for a day. This helps them better understand where the students are coming from and their learning environments prior to entering middle school.”

Parents are an important part of the equation, too. Although students are often pulling away and trying to exert more independence, Scott says, “I often suggest to parents to hold their hands tightest during adolescence. They are going through so many changes. This is a critical time to be present and really be there with your kids.”

To gain a better perspective on parents’ needs and thoughts about middle school, Scott and Martin-Knox worked with the Southwest Area Educational Advisory Council to meet with the parents of incoming Grade 6 students at the end of last school year. They are working with the BCPS Parent University to hold more such meetings around the county in the coming year.

Telling our own story

One clear message from both students and parents is that they approach middle school with some fears – only to enter middle school and find that these fears are unfounded. Movies, books, and sometimes even older siblings reinforce the notion that middle school is a scary place where they will find bullying and unhelpful teachers. 

Middle school students advise elementary school students not to listen to these negative rumors.

“We have found that it is tremendously helpful to tell our own stories about middle school,” Martin-Knox says. “The entire BCPS middle school community has really bought in to using social media to promote the positive things that are happening in our schools. We are celebrating all the time.”

To learn more follow @DrPenK and @DrMScott3 on Twitter and look for posts including #bcps_msm.

And to learn more about middle schools – including profiles of all the schools and an article about the BCPS focus on easing transitions from elementary to middle school and middle to high school, visit the BCPS website every day this month!

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