Update 1: A Tale of Three Middle Schools

My research got off to a slow start due to one of the very aspects that I plan to study with regard to Williamsburg-James City County schools: SOL testing. Between the testing days and delays on the necessary paperwork to observe the county’s middle schools, I had to wait a week longer than planned to visit the three schools. However, after spending that week reading about educational and residential inequity in general, I was more than ready to get into the classrooms.

Over the course of three days, I visited the three middle schools (which will be referred to as Schools A, B, and C to protect teachers’ identities) that will be affected by WJCC redistricting. In going to the schools, I sought to qualitatively understand school environment, from student engagement to teaching style. It is difficult to assess just what these middle school students experience on a daily basis when you’re just looking at numbers, and being in the classrooms gave me insight into how their school experiences will change when students are moved to balance socio-economic status across the county. I assessed classrooms based on how content was taught/how students responded, whether instruction was individualized to meet student needs, and how student learning was measured. For this post, I will provide a brief comparison of three history classes I observed at the three schools.

My first day of observation was at School A, the newest middle school of the three, which has the lowest percentage of students on free or reduced lunch (23%). The first classroom that I observed was sixth-grade history, and those students were far more alert and engaged that I usually am at such an early hour on a Monday morning. The teacher presented clear learning objectives for that day and asked questions about the material to draw out student knowledge rather than presenting all of the information up front on a PowerPoint. Students were eager to show off what they knew — many hands went up when questions were asked, and most of the class participated — and they were visibly disappointed if they were not called on. Many of the questions were analytical (how/why questions) rather than a basic repetition of knowledge, and even as students copied down notes, the teacher asked students to explain parts of the notes rather than just memorize them. For example, the teacher asked students to explain what certain vocabulary words in the fill-in-the-blanks meant in their own words. There were few disciplinary issues — students were only reprimanded from time to time for calling out answers rather than raising their hands.  While there were some indicators that not all students were fully engaged at all times (there were some repeated instructions or repetitive student questions), for the most part, this class was eager to learn and had strong knowledge of the material.

My second day of observation at School B was vastly different. The school is the most overcrowded (128% utilization) and has the highest percentage of students on free or reduced lunch plans (52%). A WJCC school board member representing Powhatan in James City County told me in an interview that School B was the “litmus test” during district planning — plans that reduced the percentage of students with free or reduced lunch and brought down utilization for School B were considered to be good options. I went to a seventh-grade history class that morning and found that the dynamic was much different than that of School A. Students were unresponsive, despite the fact that this class was happening at the same early hour as the sixth-grade class at School A, and I counted four students sleeping at one point during the class. Students were copying down vocabulary terms, but only four or five students out of the class of 23 participated when the teacher would ask questions related to the content. During an activity requiring students to move from one side of the room to another based on their opinion of a historical event, six or seven did not move at all, indicating a lack of engagement despite the teacher’s best efforts to get a response from her students. As I left the classroom at the bell, the teacher indicated that despite the sleeping students, that had been an unusual display of good behavior from her class, indicating disciplinary issues at School B.

School C was my final visit, falling in between A and B on both utilization (122%) and students receiving free or reduced lunch (34%). One of the sixth-grade history classes that I saw took place in a crowded classroom but involved a lot of different activities to keep students engaged. During a warmup review activity, seven or more hands (out of 29) went up for each question on the worksheet, indicating a willingness to learn and strong retention of material. Two students were standing up by their desks in eagerness to participate. Students sometimes talked out of turn and were reprimanded for chatting to each other during review time – one student had to be moved to another desk for this reason. A fill-in map was used to illustrate a historical event, and for homework, students had to answer questions about the event, using primary sources to defend their opinions. The teacher told them this exercise was meant to prepare them for AP document-based questions in high school.

Comparing these three classes, it appears that the school board member was right in telling me that School B needs the most help of the three schools, and the issues extend beyond the numbers on paper. Students there seemed to struggle more than at Schools A and C in comparable classes, and since the redistricting plan is targeted to improve School B’s conditions, moving some students around should be beneficial to students and teachers as well. Having fewer students will allow teachers to individualize instruction and better engage students during classes, and moving kids from lower socio-economic status (SES) homes to schools with kids of higher SES backgrounds will improve performance for the former group. Doing these observations helped me to see some of the problems that the middle schools are having and begin to think about how their daily operations will change next year.




  1. Abby Jackson says:

    Hi Rachel! It sounds like you have learned a lot about these three schools already, and I am excited to see what else you find out about them. I think it’s really good that you attended classes in each school that were very similar, all being history classes in close grade levels, reducing possible effects that a different school subject may have on student interest and/or engagement. Also it seems like you observed each class in similar ways, consistently looking at, for example, how many students tended to raise their hands when a question was asked. I really appreciate the measures you have clearly taken to organize and control your study as much as possible! Keep up the good work!

Speak Your Mind