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For language arts, every sixth-grader is advanced in these Pasco schools

Dani Sauerwein’s sixth-graders focused on the computer screens before them, reviewing letter-writing rules as they prepared to send words of encouragement to Marjory Stoneman Douglas High students.

"Since you are doing this letter in English [class], we are going to do it correctly," Sauerwein instructed, as she began to discuss headings and salutations amid pre-teen groans.

The lesson was identical for all, regardless of whether the students had written dozens of missives before or barely could discern a letter from a text message. At Cypress Creek Middle-High School, all sixth-graders take advanced language arts.

"We are holding them all to the same standards, which are the grade-level standards," said Meighan Melsheimer, the assistant principal overseeing the initiative. "It is proving to be successful."

She pointed to Pasco County school district data, gathered through quarterly assessments, showing that sixth-graders at both Cypress Creek and Seven Springs Middle — another school that did away with "basic" language arts this year — score several points higher in the subject than the district average. The schools also had higher percentages of students at or above grade level in language arts than other schools that still separate students by ability.

"It changes the whole dynamic," Seven Springs principal Cortney Gantt said. "Other teachers are now interested in trying it in other subjects."

The idea for putting all students in advanced language arts stemmed from the educators’ observations that the high levels of student involvement and engagement found in elementary schools was not carrying over into middle grades. One of the key problems, Melsheimer said, was a reduction in the rigor and expectations for all children.

"It was very concerning," she said.

The educators looked at research going back nearly 30 years that says grouping students by ability can hurt the learning of struggling students, while mixing children together helps the low-performers without hindering the high achievers.

With added support for those who need it, and deeper enrichment lessons for those at the other end of the spectrum, the schools aim to make the course meaningful for all.

The children who might not otherwise have qualified for an advanced course continue to take a separate reading course, but unlike in the past, it connects directly with language arts. The teachers plan together and assign the same materials, but the reading teacher focuses on vocabulary and other basic areas, so the students can get more involved in the language arts class.

Gifted and special-education teachers also help make the lessons relevant to each individual.

"Without them, I don’t think it would be as successful," Sauerwein said.

Generally speaking, teachers at both schools didn’t bother to tell students that everyone is taking an advanced class. The parents were informed, and a few raised early questions and concerns, but the students simply were assigned to their courses.

It is easier to plan higher rigor, and when you have children who need extra support, you can pull them," observed Seven Springs Middle teacher Karen Logan.

One of the most power parts of the effort is allowing students who previously had not taken advanced courses to see what their peers can do and the high level of work that’s expected, added Aimee Paus, another Seven Springs sixth-grade language arts teacher.

"The highest are not tutors, and the lowest are not just being dragged along," Paus said.

Many children said they found the idea encouraging. The said they could not see any difference among their classmates’ performance: Everyone struggles sometimes, and everyone finds success.

"I think it’s good that they’re giving everyone the same academic opportunity," said Sabrina Sexton O’Grady, a Seven Springs sixth-grader. "It helps kids to learn to study and to know, I can be in advanced classes."

Cypress Creek Middle-High sixth-grader C.J. Roeser noted that some kids do fall behind. But they catch up with help, he continued.

"I didn’t really think I would be able to do well in an advanced classroom. I wanted to start with the easy things and slowly work up," Roeser said. "But since I’m already up, I can go even higher."

Not everyone was enthusiastic about the practice, after they found out it was happening. Some kids worried that the class might move too fast for some students, making it hard to catch up.

Others raised concerns that their parents might think they can do more than they actually can accomplish.

"Sometimes the expectations are too high," said Jaden Geer, a Seven Springs sixth-grader. "We’re just 11- and 12-year-olds, and we can’t reach it."

A handful argued that the "smart kids" should have classes separated from the others, so no one struggles. As a compromise, Seven Springs sixth-grader Owen Works said, "They should be able to pick" the level of their class.

That’s not in the cards, though. Noting the standards don’t change between basic and advanced — they have the same lessons, same materials, same tests — both Gantt and Melsheimer said it only makes sense to teach everyone the same, and help anyone who needs help.

"The hope," Gantt said, "is to back ourselves out of the need for intensive reading. ... It is working."

Contact Jeffrey S. Solochek at [email protected] Follow @jeffsolochek.

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