Marshall Middle School Credit: photo by Jason Reblando

In 2000, four schools in the country were named “Schools to Watch” by the National Forum to Accelerate Middle Grades Reform, a group focused on improving middle school education. Tucked away in Irving Park is one of them, Marshall Middle School.

“We created a vision of what we thought a quality middle school should look like,” says Debby Kasak, the Forum’s executive director. “Marshall was making good inroads in that direction.”

Marshall, a predominantly Latino school, was selected from among 40 schools nominated by Forum members; the winners were chosen based on applications explaining their school’s approach and site visits. In 2005, Marshall received another “School to Watch” award, this time from the state.

“We trained them in our philosophy and Marshall was chosen again,” says Kasak.

Here’s what separated Marshall from the pack:

Everybody knows everybody

Experts in adolescent behavior say middle school is the time when students need to feel like they belong. At Marshall, they do. Students belong to one of four teams—the Idealists or the Discoverers in 7th grade and the Pathfinders or the Inspirations in 8th grade. There are approximately 90 students in each group.

“It’s like having four small schools in one big building,” says Principal Jose Barillas, who adds that the school created the teams based on training from the Carnegie Foundation.

Each team has three core teachers in math, science and social studies; each teacher also teaches language arts. (Ancillary staff work with students as a whole.) Students stay with the same teachers for 7th and 8th grade.

“We know these children, we know their families and they know us. And our students also know what we expect of them,” says 8th-grade math teacher Clare McCarthy about her team, the Pathfinders.

At least three times a week, teachers in teams get together to discuss their students and plan lessons. “There may be doors on the classrooms, but the doors don’t exist between the teachers,” says Barillas. “They manage their teams as a group, and the communication among teachers is very good.”

Communication is essential, says Kasak. “It is not enough to just be departmentalized. We want to know if schools organized [and] created smaller learning communities. Are the schedules configured to allow teams to have common planning time? There is good research that backs this up.”

Emotional support

One minute, they’re happy; the next minute, they’re sad. That is the nature of an adolescent. “With the advent of puberty and the insurgence of hormones, you see adolescents become moody. They don’t want to talk, and the next minute, you are best friends,” says Stacey Horn, a developmental psychologist at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Teachers at Marshall understand this and don’t take it personally. Every teacher in the school has had training in middle-school philosophy and adolescent behavior.

“You pick your battles in terms of behavior,” says 8th-grade social studies teacher Christa Alvarez. “It starts from the inside out. They feel pressure from society and school and all the while, their bodies are erupting.”

To keep a pulse on how students are doing emotionally, teachers discuss behaviors they see in the classroom during team meetings. Should the need arise, teachers talk about issues with the student or can call a “town meeting” with the team.

“The kids and the faculty can call a meeting whenever they want. We have two auditoriums that can be used for that,” says Barillas. “Maybe there is a project they are all working on and they all need the same information. But also, they can call one if there is a behavior problem, say bullying, that has surfaced and needs to be addressed.”

Marshall also has a partnership with Youth Guidance, which sends a social worker four days a week to counsel students. Teachers also employ various strategies in their classrooms to keep the emotional climate healthy. One example: 8th-grade science teacher Julienne Backstrom uses “circle time.”

“If I say ‘circle,’ we sit together. We see everyone’s faces and we talk about issues that are going on in the classroom or outside of it,” says Backstrom. “Or, I use it to tell them they have really improved and are doing a good job.” Backstrom says students now sometimes confide in her about difficulties they are not comfortable sharing with someone else, like problems at home.

Making students think

In addition to emotional support, experts say, adolescents need a challenging curriculum to prepare them for high school and beyond.

“What do we need to do to make the learning experience really outstanding? How do we get students engaged?” says Kasak, noting questions that middle schools need to answer. “We want children to think and know they have options beyond high school. A good middle school does that.”

To that end, Marshall has brought in several programs. One is GEAR-UP (Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs), a federally funded initiative that prepares students for post-secondary education. There’s also AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination), another college-prep program. And Marshall also uses the College Board’s Springboard curriculum, which emphasizes critical thinking, reasoning and writing.

Intellectually, middle school students are moving from concrete to abstract thinking, and Marshall’s teachers create projects and assignments to promote this development.

For example, Alvarez assigns students to develop a project that focuses on real-life world problems. Students research and choose their own topics, which puts decision making in their hands.

In one case, Alvarez’s students concerned about disappearing wetlands did research, found a group in England that sells small parcels of land to save them, collected money and then bought a parcel of land in the rainforest of Guatemala.

Says Alvarez, “At this age, students are ‘all about me,’ and these projects not only make them think and learn, but make them look outside themselves, which will help them become involved citizens later on.”

For more information on the National Forum to Accelerate Middle Grades Reform, go to or call (217) 351-2196.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.