In recent decades, our nation’s education system has moved towards a culture of accountability to ensure that every child graduates with strong literacy and numeracy skills. This heavy focus on academics, although necessary, has also caused school districts to slowly shift resources away from supporting students in their social and emotional growth, a trend that is particularly noticeable in middle schools. When the idea of a “middle school” was originally pioneered in the 1970s, it was intended to create an educational environment that would be appropriate for young people during that specific and critical time in their adolescent development. However, in practice, middle schools have operated as “mini high schools”, and consequently, across our country, students have been disengaging from classrooms that were not meeting their needs, and many families, as a result, have opted for K-8 settings.
In 2016, Miami-Dade County Public Schools (M-DCPS) embarked on a journey to rethink how we are educating our middle school students. It started with a deep dive into student performance data and school climate surveys, which made it clear that our students needed us to make a change for them. Over the next two years, the district set out to learn about efforts in other parts of the country, shadowed and spoke to students to understand what was most important to them, and engaged in thoughtful conversations with a variety of stakeholders to ensure that the voices of teachers, administrators and community members would be incorporated into our efforts.
All of this work has culminated in the initiative known as Middle School Redesign, centered on three themes: Grow, Empower and Engage. We want to grow school cultures that promote a safe and caring learning environment for our students so they can feel connected to their school community. We want to strategically provide students relevant and engaging academic opportunities to re-engage them in the classroom experience. And we want to expand learning opportunities for students so that they can be best prepared for life beyond grade 8.
Starting this fall, each of the 49 middle schools in M-DCPS will be kicking off their redesign efforts. Schools have already started designing ways to increase their elective offerings aligned with student interest (with over 150 new electives rolling out on August 20), use more technology-driven instruction, increase project-based and interdisciplinary learning and create a school culture that meets the social emotional needs of their students. To support this, staff members from every school have been trained in Design Thinking, an idea development framework from Stanford University, so that they can build the solutions that work for their individual school. Additionally, schools have also been furnished with resources from musical instruments to robotics equipment to a new social emotional learning curriculum. We expect this to be the beginning of a network of schools that will continuously learn from each other to create educational experiences that will grow, empower and engage each one of our 47,000 middle school students. We encourage you to follow the progress of this exciting new initiative on Twitter @MDCPS_MSR and #MDCPSMSRedesign.
Maria Izquierdo is Chief Academic Officer of Miami-Dade County Public Schools.