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Transitioning From Old School to New School

SMIC Private School, Shanghai redesigns its middle school program
By Patrick M. Carroll
Transitioning From  Old School to New School

During the 2016–2017 school year, K–12 Principal Kelley Ridings first broached the idea of redesigning our school’s middle school program. SMIC had just celebrated its 15th anniversary and the middle school program had gone largely unchanged since the school opened. This simple conversation ultimately led to what could only be described as a reimagining of middle school at SMIC. Our middle school in 2016–2017 was most akin to an American-style junior high school. Students moved in groups and had no flexibility in their courses or in their schedules. One size fit all. However, by the beginning of the 2018–2019 school year, all of that was history. We began the re-design process by looking at innovative middle school programs and by reviewing the research on current best practices in middle schools. For a research and philosophical base, we settled on the This We Believe middle school model as laid out by the Association for Middle Level Education (AMLE). For practical inspiration, a team of school leaders secured an invitation from International School of Beijing’s (ISB) Middle School leaders, Jon Hill and Fred Schafer, to spend a few days with their Middle School Future’s Academy. When all was said and done, our Middle School Redesign Team—made up of school leaders, teachers, and parents—came up with an innovative and ambitious program set to begin during the 2018–2019 school year. The program would include Shark Camp (a week-long introduction to middle school for students), an advisory program, integrated units phased into the curriculum at the rate of one or two per year, grade-level Professional Learning Community (PLC)-style teams, flexible scheduling for core classes, and personal inquiry time for middle school students. While the task was daunting, we were confident that our choices were in the best interest of students and would help them move into high school on more solid footing, being more emotionally balanced, academically well-prepared, and with a passion for learning and discovery. To prepare teachers, we undertook another visit to ISB, conducted a book study of This We Believe, met weekly to plan where we needed to first focus our attention, brought in an outside expert to train our staff on building integrated units, and sent multiple staff members to the EARCOS Middle School Leadership Conference and to the AMLE Leadership Conference. In addition, another member of our staff undertook professional development at her own expense at the Buck Institute for Education to help with the integrated unit creation process. Lastly, we chose three of our most excited and dynamic teachers to lead the grade-level teams. To prepare parents for the upcoming changes, we held more than a dozen different open-house meetings. These presentations explained what we intended to do, why we intended to do it, and how stakeholders could learn more. In addition to the larger presentations, the middle school leadership team regularly met with PTA representatives and concerned parents. Finally, we provided parents with annotated bibliographies of the research that went into the design. For students, we held several meetings during school time in which we explained what school would look like the following year. Our team conducted surveys and met with small focus groups to identify areas in which students experienced anxiety and spent extra time addressing as many of those concerns as possible. The middle school leadership team also met with the school’s chancellor and headmaster on multiple occasions to ensure their understanding and secure their support. In addition, the team reported to administrative meetings to keep them up-to-date on the program’s process and goals. We are proud to announce that SMIC’s middle school redesign program was successfully launched this year and that results have been strongly positive. The advisory program has identified at-risk students earlier than in previous years, while flexible scheduling in the core classes has allowed teachers to tailor instructional time to learning targets. Integrated units are showing promise as students are beginning to see how their learning fits together, while Exploration (personal inquiry time) is the biggest hit of all with both students and teachers. SMIC will continue its program of continual improvement, even while there is much to celebrate. When hard-working and dedicated teachers, staff, and parents come together over a unified vision, a new school becomes possible. Patrick M. Carroll is the outgoing Vice Principal of Secondary at the SMIC Private School, Shanghai and the incoming Middle School Principal at Korea International School, Jeju. He has been an educator for almost 20 years.

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