BALTIMORE Ten years ago, this city embarked upon a quiet but ambitious quest to reshape the school environment for children in the middle grades, 6 through 8.
Those young adolescents and preteens were the children most given to fits of drama. They posed the most daunting discipline problems. They seemed most in need of special nurturing and attention.
And so, Baltimore empowered by a rare consensus among parents, educators and politicians began combining many elementary and middle schools in single K-8 facilities. It's part of a quiet movement seen in other urban systems across the country.
In the early 1990s, Baltimore had eight such schools. This year, there were 30.
''I'd say the majority of those parents who are knowledgeable prefer to have K-8 schools in their community,'' says Michael Hamilton, president of the Baltimore Council of PTAs. ''Parents who don't want them at first start fighting for them once they learn more about what a K-8 school is.''
Parents like K-8 schools because they extend the nurturing atmosphere of elementary school to the difficult early adolescent years.
Educators like them be-cause they seem to improve test scores.
And elected officials like them because K-8 schools appeal to skittish middle-class parents who tend to flee to the suburbs in search of better schools as their children get older.
''The only issue, as far as I can see, is that parents complain that the only communities getting the schools are the ones where the parents know enough to demand them,'' says Hamilton. ''People are wondering, if it's such a good idea, why don't we create them for everyone whether parents demand them or not?''
School board president Patricia Welch says that K-8 schools are popular with both middle-class families and those living in poverty.
Middle-class families feel comfortable with their children attending school with children from the same neighborhood, says Welch. Parents in disadvantaged communities feel there is greater stability and discipline in K-8 schools.
''As an educator, I think a successful school comes down to its leadership, regardless of how it's configured,'' says Welch, who is dean of the School of Education and Urban Studies at Morgan State University. ''But let's face it, we are all very, very conscious of the need to recruit and retain the middle class because they expand our tax base and because they add to the diversity of our city. If we can throw K-8 schools into the mix, we should do it.''
City council member Melvin Stukes, who represents the predominantly black working and middle-class community of Cherry Hill, says K-8 schools ''make all the sense in the world for all families. If I had my way, I'd tear down every elementary and middle school in the city and rebuild them along the K-8 model.''
Some cities are coming close to doing just that.
In Philadelphia, schools chief Paul Vallas plans to replace virtually every middle school over the next few years as a key part of his strategy to boost student achievement. He was spurred by research from the nonprofit Philadelphia Education Fund suggesting that eighth graders at K-8 schools score higher than their counterparts at traditional middle schools, which typically are composed of grades 6-8.
''To not do so is the equivalent of educational malpractice since you can't argue with the facts and the facts are that large, high-poverty middle schools simply do not work in an urban environment,'' says Vallas, who participated in a similar initiative in Chicago.
Milwaukee, which had 10 K-8 schools three years ago, plans to have at least 60 by December 2005. Four other communities have petitioned to have K-8 schools as well, says Aquine Jackson, director of Milwaukee's Office of Neighborhood Schools.
In the future, the only middle schools in Milwaukee will be magnet schools specializing in subjects such as science or the arts, Jackson said. The majority of the city's preteens will someday attend small, community-based, K-8 schools, he predicts.
Educators in Boston, Cin-cinnati, Cleveland, Detroit, Florida, California, Oklahoma and Tennessee have moved toward K-8 schools in varying degrees.
However, some educators warn that K-8 schools also have their drawbacks.
Because they are more likely to be built upon the elementary school model, many K-8 schools lack facilities and programs for middle school courses such as algebra and the sciences.
''There's been very little strong research about their effectiveness,'' notes Vincent Ferrandino, executive director of the National Association of Elementary School Principals.
When Baltimore began converting schools in the mid-1990s, the school board asked for a comparison of test scores in Baltimore as well as a review of the available data nationwide.
Administrators reported in November 2001 that students in K-8 schools had significantly higher scores in reading, language arts and mathematics than their counterparts in K-5 and 6-8 schools, were 20 percent more likely to pass the state's standardized tests, and had slightly better attendance. Students in K-8 schools also were significantly more likely to attend one of the city's flagship citywide high schools, educators found.
Mariale Hardiman, principal of Roland Park Elementary-Middle School, says the K-8 model approach even affects parental involvement.
''Normally, as kids move up in grade parental participation drops off,'' Hardiman says. ''We're finding that our elementary school parents are a good influence on our middle school parents. They tend to serve as role models and keep them involved in the school.''
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