A surprising factor in high schools’ success at preparing students for college is a practice that’s not available for all high schools, but offers useful lessons for all schools: having a closely connected middle school. While research exploring the impact of combined middle and high schools on college enrollment is lacking, several winners of GreatSchools’ College Success Award credit their combined sixth to twelfth grade models as a part of their success.

In schools where middle and high schools share space and their administrative teams work closely together, several things happen that contribute to students’ postsecondary success. Students get familiar with a school’s culture and expectations earlier, which is especially helpful when the school has high expectations for postsecondary success; students have the opportunity to build longer-lasting relationships with teachers; and staff can identify and intervene with at-risk students earlier. Implementing more 6-12 and 7-12 systems may not be an easy solution for every district, but all schools can learn from these benefits.

A head start on learning school culture

Combined middle/high schools offer students more time to learn and internalize aspects of the school’s culture that will affect their success, while the schools have the opportunity to expose students to college and career pathways in earlier grades.

At College Success Award-winning Young Women’s Preparatory Academy, a rigorous college prep magnet school in Miami-Dade Unified School District, students enter in 6th grade and immediately start taking advanced classes to get them ready for AP classes in high school. In addition to walking halls filled with posters from the colleges where their older schoolmates are headed, middle schoolers receive explicit guidance from their college-bound peers. Through a structured program they call Big Sister, Little Sister, the high schoolers mentor middle schools students, helping them with academic and social challenges. The seniors run the entire program, guiding the high school mentors.

“[Middle schoolers] need a lot of attention, they need a lot of direction, they need a lot of structure,” says Concepcion Martinez, principal of YWPA, adding that if they get this attention during these early years, their college-going identity is formed, something that is much harder to do with incoming 9th graders.

At Newbury Junior/Senior High School in semi-rural Newbury, OH, high school students work directly with middle schoolers through a peer mentoring program. Principal Michael Chaffee says the high school’s celebration of college and career plans gets middle school students excited about their futures and makes them more passionate about learning.

Teacher relationships

The development of meaningful teacher-student relationships is critical for helping students succeed after high school. The longer teachers spend with students, the more invested they can be in supporting the student’s long-term growth, and the better they can understand individual students’ needs.

Such is the argument for the practice of looping, in which teachers and students remain together for two or more years. Research suggests that looping in the middle school years supports the development of meaningful teacher-student relationships and impacts learning and student achievement. There were even gains for new students who joined a group of classmates who had been with the same teacher for more than a year. The effects may be even more pronounced for groups traditionally underrepresented in college. A recent study showed that looping in elementary school increased student test scores, and the effects were greatest for minority students.

When middle and high schools operate together, many teachers naturally connect with students multiple times in their middle and high school lives — from childhood to young adulthood. A student may take 6th grade English, 8th grade history and 10th grade journalism all from the same teacher. When teachers and students have more time to develop strong relationships, teachers can spend less time on “getting to know you” activities every year and focus on helping each student grow to their highest potential.

Identifying student needs earlier

Starting in middle school also means identifying at-risk students even earlier than 9th grade. At Newbury, Chaffee says the school’s strong connection between middle and high school grades helps ensure all students receive a strong and consistent network of support. Teachers collaborate across grade levels, which is especially important for students who need extra help.

Having a connected middle school eliminates some of the hazards of the 9th grade crisis. The transition to high school is associated with a risk of failure, particularly for low-income students. Research shows that in ninth grade, students are more likely to miss classes, earn low grades, and have disciplinary issues than at any other time in high school.

Middle and high schools that are not connected can help ameliorate this by being strategic about the transition process. Advisory programs, which match small groups of students with teacher or staff, can help students get to know at least one adult on campus more quickly than the typical high school model where 9th grade students have six to eight teachers, and every teacher has a roster of 100 to 200 students.

Jean Baldwin Grossman, a lecturer of economics and public affairs at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School, has studied a multitude of ways to help prepare middle schoolers for high school transitions, and notes that a crucial step is to expose middle schoolers to the realities of high school life.

“A good place to start is developing some bridging activities,” she says. “Like having middle schoolers visit the high school.”

Some strategies for that exposure include high school orientation and summer bridge programs, which let students spend extra time in their new school and get a feel for high school culture and coursework. Elementary, middle, and high school teachers can also take steps to collaborate across the district to ensure curriculum and expectations are aligned, and to identify students who may need extra support.

This article is part of a series exploring best-practice approaches used by recipients of GreatSchools’ College Success Award. The College Success Award honors public high schools in nine states that are doing a great job of preparing students for postsecondary success. Learn more about the award, see the list of winners, and read about more best practices here.

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