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Q&A : Middle-School Solution to Turbulent Age Group


John Liechty, director of middle schools for the Los Angeles Unified School District.

Claim to fame: An evangelist for school reforms pegged to the needs of children in early adolescence, and a popular speaker at Westside schools, where he reassures dismayed parents that the problems of young teens are normal--and temporary. He is the main architect of a reconfiguration of Los Angeles schools that will eliminate traditional junior high schools (grades seven-nine) and replace them with middle schools containing grades six, seven and eight.

Background: A high school dropout, he subsequently returned to school and now boasts 25 years' experience as a teacher, principal and father of four--three of whom attended public schools. He lives in Pacific Palisades.

Interviewer: Times staff writer Lois Timnick.

Q: Exactly what age do you focus on and why is this period so difficult for many children--and their parents?

A: I'm concerned with 10-to-15-year-olds. It's easy to forget that the great little guy or girl who was well-behaved, polite, nice, someone we could talk to and who listened to normal music is the same child at age 13 or 14 but is just going through a different phase of development. He's almost, but not exactly, an adolescent.

Over the last 100 years we have recognized that this age group is unique in its characteristics and needs. It's why we created the junior high school at the turn of the century. But it has become merely a simplified version of senior high, which was designed for young people between ages 15 and 20.

I am trying to get parents, the community and educators to recognize one critical fact: That every single 10-to-15-year-old is at risk--regardless of the language they speak, their socioeconomical status, their ethnicity, their academic standing--because during that five-year period they are going to make decisions that will impact the quality of the rest of their lives, education being one of the major issues. The belief system they develop now about themselves and their potential is difficult, if not impossible, to change later.

The changes in their bodies are obvious, but they also go through more emotional, social, psychological and personal changes now than any other time in their lives, except for the first year of infancy. I sometimes call them "hormones with legs." They are self-centered, questioning, awkward, easily embarrassed and humiliated. Not to mention sullen and withdrawn. And unpredictable: that same little guy who comes running to throw his arms around you is also capable of blowing your head off and not giving it 30 seconds' thought, because of where he is developmentally.

Q: Why is it important to reconfigure the schools so that the traditional junior high of seventh-through-ninth grade becomes a middle school with the sixth, seventh and eighth grades together?

A: There is a peak to the unpredictability and the bizarreness curve of early adolescence that comes at about 14 or 15--about the ninth grade.

Moving ninth-graders up means you no longer have a group at the peak of their bizarreness serving as models for the seventh and eighth graders, and that bizarreness itself gets muted once they're in the shadow of high school upperclassmen.

Also, it's clear to everybody that, developmentally speaking, a ninth-grader has much more in common with a 12th-grader than with a seventh-grader, while a sixth-grader has more in common with an eighth-grader than with a third-grader.

And a six-through-eight grouping is more flexible. Ninth grade is the first year of the high school curriculum. I would be willing to give up both hands if I'm wrong, but I guarantee that our dropout rate would fall by a minimum of 10% if we put every ninth grader in a four-year comprehensive high school. You can offer a more comprehensive academic program in a four-year high school.

Q: Are the psychological and social changes that kids encounter coming earlier now because everything is so accelerated?

A: Partly. We're seeing some behaviors at a much earlier age than, say, even 20 years ago. A lot of that has to do with the informational society that we exist in. The media is extremely influential to this group, and advertisers know that kids spend billions. Part of that consumption is identity--it's why, when my daughter asks for tennis shoes, she's not asking for sneakers, she wants a $150 pair of Reebok Pump-Ups and she believes that she has to have them in order to fit in. And if she doesn't get them she is going to make me feel like garbage.

Also, a larger percentage of our parents today are working, and we have a growing number of single-parent families, all of them struggling to meet their children's "needs." We've got kids across this district who may be classified as poverty level, but they are wearing $100 tennis shoes, $200 sweat suits. At its most extreme, the need to belong leads some to steal what their parents can't afford.

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