School recognized for personal touch; Teachers at Irving campus team up to focus on student needs

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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To call the boy shy would be understating the case. When he arrived at Irving’s Lamar Middle School, the sixth-grader sat in the back of his classes. He spoke to no one.

“He’d just sit down with the hood of his sweat shirt over his head,” math teacher Beth Visentine said. “That was his shield.”

He was plenty bright: When pushed, he could multiply three-digit numbers in his head. But in a lot of schools, he’s the kind of kid who falls into the cracks.

At Lamar, a team of teachers didn’t let that happen. All his teachers gathered regularly in a small room near the principal’s office and talked about ways to draw him out. They compared notes about what worked and what didn’t. They talked about paying more attention to him in class, tapping him on the shoulder when they walked down his aisle so he knew that they were interested. It worked. “It got to the point where he would actually smile once in a while,” Ms. Visentine said.

That’s the kind of story that has made Lamar one of the state’s most successful campuses. Despite dealing with a largely poor student body, Lamar prides itself on personal attention to student needs.

“If people ask me about good middle schools in the state, I give them Lamar’s name,” said Cecil Floyd, executive director of the Texas Middle School Association. “People can visit it and see a school in that sort of economic situation and devoted to helping kids, but still getting good test scores.”

Kids in the middle grades have always posed challenges to educators. Traditionally, they were treated as mini-high school students, with much the same freedom and independence as their older brothers and sisters. A year removed from the mothering world of elementary school, they were set free in a large, unstructured environment, moving from isolated classroom to isolated classroom. Logically, their schools were called junior highs.

A new approach

But in the 1970s, a group of educators around the country began to believe that early teens needed a school experience closer to what they had in elementary school, where one teacher typically was responsible for a child’s entire education.

They pushed for what became known as the middle school model. Middle schools were most distinguished by teaching teams and coordination among various subjects.

“People recognized that kids who are 12, 13, 14 years old are unique,” Mr. Floyd said. “You have to have programs that are appropriate for those ages. You can’t treat them as if they were older.”

In Irving, Lamar was the strongest early adopter of the middle school model, dating to the late-1980s.

Irving is a suburb, but its student population doesn’t fit suburban stereotypes.

About half of Lamar’s students are minorities. This year, for the first time, a majority of Lamar students are poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price school lunches. For Lamar principal Cynthia Goodsell, a former principal and Teacher of the Year in the Dallas schools, it’s a familiar student body.

“Coming from Dallas, I thought the kids here would be better off,” Ms. Goodsell said. “But the kids here are the same. If you can convince them you care about them, they’ll work hard for you.”

When kids have problems – academic or personal – they often come out in teacher team meetings. Each grade level is divided into two or three teams, with names such as the Wildcats, the Claws and the Big Cats. (Lamar’s mascot is a lion, and the group names tend to be feline-based.)

Each team is assigned a half-dozen teachers, one for each of the major academic subjects. The teachers don’t teach anyone outside their team. Teachers meet every day during a planning period to coordinate when they’re giving tests and what units they’re covering.

More important, they talk about their students – how they’re doing, where they’re weak, and how they can help individually or as a group. Some deride “teaching the whole child” as too touchy-feely. But teachers say that’s the strength of the system.

“We don’t lose children through the cracks,” reading teacher Susan Reagan said.

“It makes us better at changing behavior, so you’re not always just putting out fires,” said Melany Ash, a teacher of gifted and talented children.

Take the girl who was always acting up and earning demerits in her reading class. “Just in reading, not anywhere else,” English teacher Carol Holder said. “If we weren’t talking to each other, we might think she was just a problem. But we realized it was just who she was sitting near. On a team we can figure that out and talk it through.”

‘More attention’

The students seem to notice the impact of teaming. “It separates the kids so they can get more attention,” said Spencer Shrum, 13.

Sometimes the problems are more serious: threats of suicide or violence, deep depression, or issues in the home.

“You know as a kid this group of adults is always going to be looking out for you,” said reading teacher Kitty Kennedy, who often is asked to help Lamar children who have drug or alcohol problems. “It’s a kind of security a lot of these kids don’t get elsewhere. Here, you teach the kid. You don’t just teach the subject.”

If a parent has a concern, she usually meets with all her child’s teachers at once, giving perspective and ensuring that problems are being attended to.

“The teachers are enthused about helping the kids out,” parent Joni Mueller said.

In Texas today, this sort of attention to a child’s social and emotional needs would mean little if the test scores weren’t strong. At Lamar, they are.

The education research group Just for the Kids uses a mathematical formula that compares schools with others that have similar or greater numbers of tough-to-educate kids – those who can’t speak English well, are poor and were ill-prepared by their previous schools.

Among its peer schools, Lamar finishes first in the state in reading and writing. It also finishes second in math and science and fourth in social studies.

It has been named a Blue Ribbon school by federal officials and was recently named to the state honor roll of the Texas Education and Business Coalition, which honored the 12 middle schools with the strongest sustained academic record.

While the state rated Lamar as “recognized” – the state’s second-highest mark – this year, it was only five passing students from the “exemplary” rating.

“We’ve got to get better in a few areas, like writing,” Ms. Goodsell said. “But we have terrific people doing terrific work here.”

The philosophy that Lamar helped pioneer is used at each of Irving’s seven middle schools as well as at several other area districts.

Mr. Floyd says it’s difficult to know how popular the middle school model is in Texas.

“There are lots of schools that have ‘Middle School’ on the outside of the building, but they’re not doing middle school things,” he said. “It says Baptist on the outside, but it’s Methodist on the inside.”

Unflagging dedication

But Lamar’s dedication to the model has been unflagging, through three principals, dozens of teachers and more than a decade of students.

“Lamar really bought into the concept early on,” said Chuck Chernosky, Irving’s director of secondary curriculum and instruction. “All around the state, people know Lamar. They look at the school as a small learning community. It’s really a family.”