U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan has called middle schools “the Bermuda Triangle of K-12 education.”
“It’s a time when students sink or swim,” he said, “and sail into choppy waters with few pedagogical stars by which to navigate.”
Making the middle grades matter was the focus of the second annual Youth-Nex conference, held Oct. 18 and 19 in Newcomb Hall and hosted by the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education. The conference brought together scholars, educators, practitioners, advocates and policy professionals from across the country to focus on the future of middle schools in the context of positive youth development.
Residing within the Curry School, Youth-Nex: The U.Va. Center to Promote Effective Youth Development is a trans-disciplinary center devoted to promoting healthy youth development through focused research, training and service.
“We had leadership in education at national and state levels, leading advocates and scholars, and local practitioners in a vigorous and productive discussion,” said Patrick H. Tolan, director of Youth-Nex and a Curry professor. “We had unprecedented focus on middle school youth as being capable and middle schools as the center of approaching their development from this view.”
The conference, featuring the theme “In-Between: Middle Schools as Centers for Positive Youth Development,” included six panel discussions, opening remarks by Tolan and a keynote speech by Alma J. Powell, chair of America’s Promise Alliance.
“Youth-Nex and its mission of promoting effective youth development is very much aligned with Jefferson’s legacy and with his wishes for this University,” Powell said in her keynote address, “Keeping America’s Promise: The Role of Our Youth.”
America’s Promise Alliance, with more than 400 national partners, is committed to seeing that children experience the fundamental resources they need to succeed. The alliance is currently leading a 10-year campaign to end the dropout crisis.
“We would need 19 Scott Stadiums to hold the number of dropouts this nation accumulates every year,” Powell said.
She maintained that the dropout crisis remains the nation’s most serious challenge, robbing America of $3.2 trillion of future wages and spending power over the last decade.
According to Powell and the educators at this conference, that crisis begins in the middle schools.
The six panels at the conference focused on issues of early adolescence and the intersection with educational organization and programming. The goal of these sessions was to identify, share and plan the best methods to promote positive and effective youth development in the middle years.
Leaders in higher education, government, academic research and nonprofits discussed:
- innovative training for middle school education;
- incorporating developmental transitions into curricula and teaching;
- students and peers as positive resources for engagement;
- establishing partnerships between parents and schools for better middle schools;
- connecting community and schools for effective youth development;
- and making middle schools themselves centers for positive youth development.
Prior to the panel discussions, Jacquelynne S. Eccles, a professor of psychology and education at the University of Michigan with more than 30 years of research in the field of education, delivered the presentation, “Supporting Positive Youth Development in the Middle School Years.” She identified the middle years as a “period of constant fluctuation” located somewhere “between standing out and fitting in.”
“We have to take responsibility for making the schools the context that is the most developmentally appropriate for the middle-school period,” she said. “Then we can worry much less about the likelihood that they’ll get captured by contexts outside the schools that are less developmentally appropriate.”
Youth-Nex encompasses work in areas such as health management, civic engagement, education and social responsibility. The center also focuses on preventing youth problems such as violence, bullying, school failure, substance abuse, and physical and mental health issues.
“We are excited about what this conference can mean for youth and for the Youth-Nex center’s mission,” Tolan said.
— By Robert Hull