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Indianola Junior High School, the first Junior High in the United States

The history of middle level schools is . . . complicated. The first junior high schools were established with support from early psychologists, urban labor unions, and university presidents. It was a great idea, but let’s say that everyone wasn’t on the same page. In today’s post, Andrew explains exactly why middle level schools are so very important.

The first middle level school, Indianola Junior High School, was founded in Columbus, Ohio, in 1909. At the time, only 7% of local students graduated from the 12th grade. Children largely left school after 5th grade in order to begin work at local factories or farms. The Ohio State Journal explained, “The new junior high… was organized to give those pupils who are unable to receive a four years’ high school course a more practical education in the earlier grades.”

But the history of Junior High School isn’t a straightforward success story. Over the next 75 years, communities reorganized middle level schools multiple times — from Junior High School to Intermediate School to Middle School. A series of influential commissions and analytical reports addressed fundamental challenges in middle grade schools. And today, critics complain that “the middle school concept” leads to increased negative behaviors and low academic achievement.

It isn’t completely untrue. Data collected from National Council of Education Statistics show that students in 8th grade score roughly 10% below their parallel scores in 5th grade. And roughly 70% of middle school students in New York State score below proficiency in reading and mathematics. Peter Meyer writes, “By all accounts, the middle grades are the weak link in the chain of American education.”

But here’s the thing: middle school is actually incredibly important.

Research explains that student achievement in middle school has a more significant impact on forward academic achievement that “anything that happens academically in high school or college”. In fact, middle school reform may “offer the greatest potential” to increase college completion and promote professional success. Turning Points, a national research report published by the Carnegie Council on Adolescent Development (1989) explains: “Middle grade schools are potentially society’s most powerful force.”

Why? Because during adolescence, students develop more advanced interests and skills. When students feel interested and engaged, they are more and more likely to connect complicated ideas and understandings. And what’s important is that successful students only develop and deepen their abilities over time because identity exploration and positive social development helps students develop creativity, discipline, leadership, and motivation. (Smith, 1999) (Lord, 2001)


What if middle school were amazing?

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The Workshop Independent is a middle | micro | maker school for diverse students and families in Brooklyn, New York.

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