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Future of middle school program is taking shape

This time next year, the middle school experience in Independent School District 196 might look considerably different than it does today.

A district committee is nearing the end of a process that began last April to examine the middle school program districtwide and look for ways it can be improved.

The process is in part a reaction to test scores that are lower than in some comparable schools around the Twin Cities and in part a recognition that the district hasn't taken this kind of in-depth look at the program since the 1970s.

The committee has spent much of this year talking to teachers and administrators both in District 196 and around the area. As it looks for improvements, everything from modified approaches to helping struggling students to restructured school days are on the table.

"It's hard to know where we're going to land right now," said Mark Parr, the district's secondary education director. "Obviously in the next month we're going to get there. I believe it's going to be some big things and some smaller things."

The process to this point has involved both a review of the way district middle schools operate and a search for some of the most successful schools around the Twin Cities, based on performance on the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment test. Members of the district committee sat down with leaders from four of those schools in September to talk about what they do and why it works.

Parr said a few obvious changes came up during those discussions, like focusing more on the state's standards and developing a more systematic approach to helping students who struggle to grasp a lesson.

A change to the daily schedule at the middle school could allow for longer classes in subjects like math and science, where students traditionally struggle. Parr said that is a serious consideration.

But in an update to board members Monday Parr warned there is no single fix that will suddenly make middle schoolers' test scores skyrocket. This process, he said, is about finding tools that work and making sure district employees know how to use them.

"There's no silver bullet with anything, but especially here," Parr said. "I think it really is a combination of things. The nice thing about this effort is we're finding out about some things we know we can improve. We're finding out some things we know we can improve. We're finding out what they're doing and we're finding out what we're doing."

The committee is finding some good approaches even within the district that can be shared with other district middle schools.

Parr and others seem to be enjoying the discussion. Rosemount Middle School principal Mary Thompson said there is value in taking time to look at what you do well and where you can improve. She's happy with the way things have gone so far. And while there is some uncertainty among staff members who are anxious to see what changes might mean for them, she sees a lot of support for the process.

"I think people are excited," Thompson said. "Also a little leery and worried."

Everyone should know more soon what the future holds. The review committee will hold more discussions in November and plans to make a recommendation to the school board in December. Changes would go into effect for the 2011-12 school year.