Is Middle School Bad For Kids?

HALL PASS: Students at Milwaukee's Fritsche Middle School dash from the scene at the end of a long school day
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It's 10 a.m. on a bright May day, and the arts wing at Gustav A. Fritsche Middle School in Milwaukee, Wis., is hopping. In a band room, 21 members of the jazz ensemble are rehearsing Soul Bossa Nova with plenty of heart and impressive intonation, in preparation for a concert downtown. In another room, woodblocks, timpani and bells are whipping up a rhythmic frenzy as the 75-member Fritsche Philharmonic Orchestra tackles Elliott Del Borgo's Aboriginal Rituals. In an art room, eighth-graders are shaping clay vessels to be baked in the school kiln. Down the hall, students are dabbing acrylic paints on canvas to create vivid still lifes à la Vincent van Gogh. At 10:49, when the 82-min. arts period ends, kids of all sizes, colors and sartorial stripes pour out of classrooms, jostling and joking, filling the hallway with the buzz of pubescent energy. Then it's off to language arts, math, social studies and the array of other subjects offered at this sprawling arena for adolescents.

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A few blocks away, at Humboldt Park Elementary School, which serves kindergarten through eighth grade, a charming scene unfolds in Karen Hennessy's classroom. Her kindergartners are enjoying a visit from their eighth-grade "buddies." All around the room, big kids sit knees to chest in miniature chairs or cross-legged on the alphabet carpet. Each little kid has chosen a picture book to share with a big buddy. Some lean on eighth-grade laps as they listen. Logan Wells, a strapping 14-year-old, reads The Little Engine That Could to Alec Matias and Jacob Hill. Jacob, 5, seems mesmerized equally by the bright illustrations and by the eighth-grader turning the pages. He presses against Logan as if to absorb some big-kid magic. The older boy reads on with gentle forbearance.

If you were 13 years old, where would you rather be? Big, frenetic Fritsche, with its thrilling range of arts classes, bands, Socratic seminars and TV studio, all aimed at 1,030 sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders? Or calm and cozy Humboldt Park, where the teachers seem to know the names and histories of all 585 students, ages 4 to 14? If you're the parent of a 13-year-old, which would you choose for your child? The two schools represent two sides of a debate that has ripped through Milwaukee and other U.S. cities. For the past decade, middle schools have been the educational setting for roughly two-thirds of students in Grades 6 through 8. But increasingly, communities are questioning whether they really are the best choice for this volatile age group.

In Milwaukee, both Fritsche and Humboldt Park have fine reputations, but the district has decided to place most of its bets on the likes of Humboldt Park. Since 2001, it has expanded the number of K-8 schools from 12 to 48, with 14 more on the way. Meanwhile, the number of middle schools in Milwaukee has shrunk from 23 to 14. "Once young adolescents get to the sixth grade, the achievement level begins to decline a bit and disruptive behavior increases," says William Andrekopoulos, the superintendent of schools. "We're providing a number of different options," including some big middle schools, he notes, "but we know that a small learning community is going to make a difference."