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Focus on Middle Grades Seen as Pivotal to High School and College Readiness

The Forgotten Middle. The Bermuda Triangle. The Black Box. The Educational Weak Link. 

These are all terms that researchers and policymakers have used to describe the middle school years. Recognizing that college- and career-readiness needs to start before high school, there is a growing push to motivate young adolescents and get them planning for their future.

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The United Way just wrapped up a grant program working with 13 cities to develop new tools to engage middle grade students, their families, and volunteer organizations. It encouraged school-community partnerships to use data to build early-warning systems, design interventions to help kids falling off track, offer mentoring programs, and increase awareness to help improve the outcomes of students ages 10-15.

The Middle Grade Success Challenge gave $50,000 to nine community United Ways, which in turn provided matching money for the project. The grant period began in early 2013 and wrapped up in June. This week in Alexandria, Va., many involved in the effort gathered to discuss outcomes and plans to share their experience more broadly.

The middle grades challenge was part of the United Way's larger goal to, by 2018, cut in half the number of students who drop out of school and improve the number of students who graduate from high school ready for college and career.

Stacey Stewart, the U.S. president of United Way Worldwide, said it was important to work across sectors and address the holistic needs of young teens—education, health, and income. "We are challenging ourselves to step up to a different role—not just funder, but collaborating with what's happening in the community, and leveraging data to make better decisions," she said at the symposium, "Maximizing the Middle," on Dec. 3.

The focus of the grant program was on collaborative work with 73 partners and 12 VISTA volunteers brought in through the nine funded communities to deepen the connections with middle grade students.

"We lose young people in the middle grades, even if they physically drop out in high school, it starts in middle school," said Ayeola Fortune, the director of youth success in education for the United Way Worldwide.

At this age, kids are "trapped in their peer culture" and need help envisioning their possible future selves, said Ronald Ferguson, the faculty director of the Achievement Gap Initiative at Harvard University and co-founder of Tripod Education Partners, Inc., a Cambridge, Mass.-based company known for conducting student surveys. In school, students often hold back from doing their best or misbehave because of peers, although they want to do the right thing, Ferguson's surveys showed.

In Pittsburgh, the United Way of Allegheny County used the challenge grant to support a mentoring program to provide caring role models for students in 6th-8th grades. Damon Bethea, the director of the mentoring project, helped arrange for adults to meet with students for one hour a week in school. On those days, attendance peaked and students who were uncertain about their futures learned about various career paths and reasons to stay in school, he said.

Phyllis Martin, the vice president of strategy and investment at the United Way in Greenville, S.C., brought together volunteers from the business community, faith community, and schools to develop an early-warning and response system in four middle schools. Having the data helped guide the conversation and plans for wraparound services to support the students both inside and outside of school, she said.

In Washington, D.C., the United Way worked with the Kelly Miller Middle School, one of the lowest-performing middle schools in the city and located in an area with high crime and poverty. It help support a dozen City Year volunteers, full-time young adults ages 18-24 who work like an urban Peace Corps, to help greet the children, provide in-class support, conduct tutoring, and assist at lunch and after-school programs.

As "near peers," the volunteers are somewhere between being friends and mentors, said Jeff Franco, a  vice president and executive director City Year Washington, one of 25 locations in the U.S. where the nonprofit operates. "They are able to create connections that teachers can't," he said.

When bringing in community volunteers, middle school leaders need to make sure they are working together to create a culture of high expectations, said Abdullah Zaki, the principal at Kelly Miller. For example, interventions should push students not just to do minimal work but to achieve grade-level performance, he said.

To better connect parents with the middle school, parents were invited to special events, such as Kelly Miller Girls Rock, a empowerment week with workshops on dressing for the workplace and career planning. "We wanted to make parents want to come out, outside of a PTA meeting or conference, to see things that were getting their students excited," said Timothy Johnson, the vice president of community impact at the National Capital Area United Way.

The United Way plans to gather information from all the challenge-grant recipients and release a report with resources early next year.

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