Do Middle School Kids Face 'Bermuda Triangle?'

ByABC News
August 24, 2005, 6:45 AM

PHILADELPHIA, Aug. 28, 2005 — -- Jake Simmet, 11, always has helped his mom, Michelle, around the house, but she's worried his sweet demeanor may soon disappear.

Jake is about to enter middle school.

"My fears are that he doesn't get involved with the wrong kind of kids, or in drugs or drinking," she said.

Michelle Simmet is one of millions of parents now questioning whether public middle schools, with grades six through eight, are the best choice for such a vulnerable age group.

"I think it's a difficult time," she said, "because of all the changes their bodies are going through, with hormones and growing."

Educators in a growing number of cities agree and have begun reconfiguring their schools, turning away from the middle school model and back to the kindergarten through eighth grade system that was popular before the 1970s.

Some districts are making the switch due to cost-cutting and overcrowding, but for the most part, the changes are driven by a series of studies. They depict middle schools as the "Bermuda Triangle" of education.

Philadelphia eighth-graders at the K-8 schools scored significantly higher on state tests than their middle school counterparts, studies by the Philadelphia Education Fund show. And nationally, crime takes off in middle schools, where it's 30 percent higher than in elementary schools, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

"Middle schools are flawed organizationally," said Paul Vallas, chief executive officer of the Philadelphia School District. "They simply don't work."

Vallas has nearly eradicated middle schools in Philadelphia.

"Middle-grades children in K-8 schools do far better than they do in middle schools," Vallas said, "both academically and behaviorally.

If your child is entering middle school, educators suggest, take your child to school as often as possible. Exchange phone numbers with teachers and get involved in the PTA and other school projects.

"I'll be involved as much as I can with the school and keep an eye on him," Simmet said.

ABC News' Gigi Stone originally reported this story for "World News Tonight" on March 13, 2005.