$1.25 million in grants keeps middle school program alive in Hamilton County

$1.25 million in grants keeps middle school program alive in Hamilton County

December 12th, 2012 by Kevin Hardy in News

Brooklyn Moore, a student at Hunter MIddle School, reads her chosen book, "Kiss in the Dark" during a reading class taught by Connie Waters.

Photo by Staff File Photo /Times Free Press.

Pieces of a nearly decade-old middle school reform effort will live on, thanks to a grant of more than $1 million.

After months of uncertainty, the Lyndhurst Foundation has committed $500,000 this year and another $750,000 next year to Middle Schools for a New Society, a partnership between Hamilton County Schools and PEF.

The Middle Schools for a New Society initiative, previously funded by Lyndhurst and the National Education Association Foundation, is a broad effort to improve teaching and leadership at all 20 Hamilton County middle schools. In the past, the project has funded teacher training, school-level grants, principal training and instructional coaches to work with teachers in each middle school.

The new round of funding will allow the program to continue funding the instructional coaches and principal networking in all middle schools. The central office and some schools had picked up the tab for the coaches this semester as previous grant dollars dwindled. Superintendent Rick Smith said the central office will still pitch in on funding the instructional coaches, but Lyndhurst's grant will allow the district to free up some cash for other school needs.

School and foundation officials say the new grant money will allow them to continue the work, which has led to more teacher collaboration, better-trained leaders and improved student achievement in the middle grades since it began in 2004.

"This group of people have truly come together and believe in high expectations for all students," said Ismahen Kangles, director of Middle Schools for a New Society. "The culture that's been created in this district is second to none."

A transition on Lyndhurst's board left uncertainty as to whether the eight-year effort would continue to be funded. Since 2004, the foundation has invested $9 million in the effort.

Lyndhurst President Benic "Bruz" Clark said the foundation considered the previous success of the initiative and the relative ease of continuing it. But changes in education, such as a move toward the more rigorous Common Core standards, mean principals and teachers will continue to need support.

"The bar keeps being raised," Clark said. "So to abandon an ecosystem or an infrastructure when we need it more than ever seemed to be counterproductive on our part."

And the middle school work has reached all middle grades principals, some 600 teachers and more than 9,000 students annually.

"It's really a systemic, across-the-district effort -- from Sale Creek to East Ridge," said Dan Challener, president of PEF. "It's all schools. And that's really important."

Continuing the work

School officials announced Lyndhurst's renewed commitment to middle school principals and coaches Tuesday afternoon.

"We're just excited that the things we put in place will continue and that we will continue to support our teachers," said Tandra Garrett, an instructional coach at East Lake Academy.

Garrett said she spends time planning with teachers, providing extra training and co-teaching to model certain lessons. And with Tuesday's announcement, that work won't go away.

East Ridge Middle School used some of its Title I dollars, federal funds designated for high-poverty schools, to continue funding its instructional coach during this semester's funding gap.

"That's how much we are behind this," Principal Steven Robinson said.

The coach plays an important role in the school, Robinson said. It's not cost effective to send all of a building's teachers off to outside training. But an in-house instructional coach can receive training and replicate it at the building level, he said.

East Ridge's instructional coach focuses her time with teachers who are the most receptive to new ideas and those who would benefit most, Robinson said. But he's clear that the coach's presence in a classroom isn't punitive or meant to evaluate teachers. She's simply there to improve teaching.

"She never reports to me," the principal said. "She works directly with teachers, and they have the understanding that she's not an administrator."

Changing Culture

This spring Hunter Middle School staff cited the middle school initiative for changing everything at the Ooltewah-area school, with all educators re-examining their roles and strategies. Principal Robert Alford said the school culture has changed as teachers and administrators have put a greater emphasis on reading and writing.

"This building has changed to a culture of literacy," Alford said. "I can't pinpoint, 'Oh, go look at this.' It's just a different feeling."

But some clues do hint at what's changed.

Books are everywhere. Each reading classroom is stocked with dozens of them in various genres and difficulty levels. And students spread out on carpets or special reading areas. Teachers have signs next to their doors proclaiming what book they're reading that week. And bulletin boards and T-shirts advertised "The Hunter Games," a play on the popular "The Hunger Games" books and movies.

Hunter has created separate reading and writing classes. And like most Hamilton County middle schools, Hunter uses strategies from the Readers and Writers Workshop in those courses. That program pushes students to read and write often. And students aren't just reading the typical middle school novels. Each child is encouraged to read books at his or her ability level and interest.

"Think about adults: We read what we want to read," said instructional coach Jill Smith.

Teachers say this strategy can foster a love of reading in any student, even those who struggle most. But more importantly, the workshop method ensures that students have a deep understanding of what they read -- not just that they can regurgitate information.

"I am no longer a teacher of books," reading teacher Jenney Frazier said. "I teach the skill of reading, which is much harder to do."

Contact staff writer Kevin Hardy at khardy@timesfree press.com or 423-757-6249.