With reports of a growing space crunch in Lawrence public schools, some people may wonder why Lawrence's Commission on Mid-Level and High School Education has been discussing middle school philosophy instead of just talking about possible new facilities.
But Washburn Rural Middle School in the Auburn-Washburn school district illustrates why school philosophy and building plans go hand in hand, said Dennis Shoemaker, associate superintendent at Auburn-Washburn. The school, which opened last October, was specifically designed to facilitate common middle school practices.
"Growth is a golden opportunity to do something unique," Shoemaker said, "and there's nothing more unique than middle school kids."
The school might serve as a model for the Lawrence school district if it were to switch from a junior high system to a middle school system and, because of growing enrollment, build a new middle school to complement existing facilities.
"The junior high facilities that we have right now will support a middle school concept," said Mick Lowe, a member of the Lawrence commission and principal at West Junior High School. "What makes a program work is the support of the people who are implementing it."
HOWEVER, Lowe said, "The ideal is to go out and build a facility that supports a program from the ground up. It's just nice to have a building that's not an inhibitor to your program."
David Reese, principal at Washburn Rural Middle School, said the building's design helps with "interdisciplinary teaming," a common component of middle schools.
The school's 710 seventh- and eighth-graders are divided into groups of about 125 students. Each group rotates among an interdisciplinary team of five teachers, with each teacher handling about 25 students at a time. Each teacher teaches one of five core subjects: English, science, math, social studies and communications.
The building's classrooms are clustered into groups of four, allowing students to stay in the same general area as they go from one class to another. The science classrooms are located along the periphery of the building, allowing for scientific experiments involving sunlight.
THE CLUSTERED classrooms also have foldable walls, which allow two to four teachers and their classes to work together on occasion. Reese said that flexibility helps with the integration of the different core subjects, a strong focus of middle schools.
In addition to the five core subjects, students for one period a day take an "exploratory" course, another middle school concept. Unlike the core subjects that last all year long, the exploratory courses last only six weeks and consist, in the seventh grade, of French, Spanish, Art, Sewing Plus, Foods Plus and Explorations in Technology. Eighth-graders have a similar program.
"The idea is to give students a lot of opportunities to see what they like and dislike," Reese said. "We give them a broad sampling of all kinds of things so they can make a judgment on future choices."
WHEREAS students traditionally might take an art class because it's perceived to guarantee "an easy A," Reese said, "Here it's more geared toward, `This is a potential future activity in your life.'"
All of the specialized classrooms for exploratory courses are located in the same area of the building.
"It's important for those teachers to feel like part of a team, also," said Washburn Rural Counselor Donna Cready, adding that the exploratory teachers meet on occasion throughout the week.
The school day also has a seventh-period, in which seventh-graders alternate daily between physical education and music classes. Eighth-graders take a semesterlong physical education class during that period and can take music or some elective during the other half of the year.
IN ADDITION to having an individual planning period, teachers have another planning period in which they meet with the other members of their interdisciplinary teams.
Reese said that besides being able to plan lessons jointly, the teachers have an opportunity to discuss the needs of individual students during those meetings.
"Each teacher becomes a child advocate so there can be more of an immediate response to problems and so kids don't get lost in a program," Reese said.
The building has conference rooms designated especially for those team meetings. A telephone is in the room should someone wish to contact a parent. Also, teachers' materials can be handily filed and stored in a storage area near the conference room.