We are firmly within the 21st century, yet we still use phrases such as “21st-century skills” and “college and career readiness.” As leaders, it is high time that we refocus our vernacular to reframe the conversation around how we prepare students for the world. We have seen many examples of professional learning and topics related to preparation for life after high school, but what about life after middle level education? There have been multiple programs designed to tackle this question, but here is a perspective that has been positively embraced by students, parents, and educators at Fountain Middle School. 

High School Readiness

Ask yourself, how did you know you were ready to graduate high school? What single result told you that you were ready? If you are like the majority of teens in America, the answer is simple. You had spent four years in high school and reached the number of credits required to graduate. Graduating is what naturally comes next. But what comes after that? Sure, why not college? Ask yourself again, how did you know you were ready for college? 

Across the nation, we recognize that we want to produce generations of young adults who are prepared and ready for the world that awaits them after high school. However, if we struggle to answer a question as simple as “How did I know I was ready to graduate high school?” with anything better than, “It was time,” then what about transitioning to high school? How do students know they are ready to leave middle level education? In many instances, the expectations at high school are more comprehensive, and it is more difficult to recover from missteps. On the other hand, many now recognize the risks in not moving students along with their age equivalent and social peers. Therefore, unprepared students often enter a cycle of credit deficiency and social and emotional distress. 

One solution may be to ask what middle level schools can do to expose students to the culture of high school in a risk-free environment. At Fountain Middle School, the answer to “How do I know I am ready to leave middle school?” involves two fundamental pillars for eighth-grade students: credit expectations and core competencies. Upon entering eighth grade, students are educated on credits, the importance of staying credit proficient, and the consequences of not doing so. 

Students are expected to meet a specific number of credits that are equivalent to successfully completing two semesters at a comprehensive high school. When students are successful, this success is celebrated. Students who are not tracking toward this expectation by mid-year begin to enter a credit recovery mechanism in which they choose after-school support, virtual learning options, or (in severe cases) during-the-day interventions to recover lost credits. After successful completion of the recovery option chosen, students have regained lost credits. At the end of eighth grade, students who successfully meet the credit expectations have demonstrated one of two requirements to know they are ready for high school. Students who have not earned the necessary credits still move to high school, however, they bring with them a body of evidence for high school counselors and teachers to support the needs of the student from day one. 

The second pillar of high school readiness is core competencies. Here teachers have identified six core competencies that all students should demonstrate prior to finishing eighth grade to demonstrate high school readiness. Students can commonly demonstrate these core competencies in a variety of units of instruction, and do not require anything new to be provided by the teacher. What changes is that the teacher deliberately creates transparency in the desired competency, and the student tracks their mastery of the competency. For example, one core competency indicates that students “use interpersonal skills to learn and work with individuals from diverse backgrounds to find value in the perspective expressed by others.” This can be accomplished within a Socratic Circle, a debate, or a piece of persuasive writing, among other possibilities. 

Students who have earned all required eighth-grade credits and have demonstrated mastery of all core competencies have demonstrated high school readiness and can answer how they knew they were ready for high school. Students who have not met both pillars of readiness expectations know that they enter high school with a need to seek assistance and focus their efforts, while the high school knows these students may need immediate attention and support to be successful. 

Postsecondary Pathways

Another area where middle level schools can reframe the conversation around postsecondary readiness is college and career readiness. Think back to one of the previous questions—how you knew you were ready to graduate high school. What was your answer? Did you know immediately what your career would be? It is safe to say most students don’t. Just look at the rate of students who change majors within their first two years in college. 

How have schools sought to address this need? Often through interest tests and poster projects where students research a career, what it takes to obtain that career, and how much they will make once they do. Are projects like this worth the lost instructional time? What if schools created alignment in core courses, exploratory courses, and extracurricular activities with a student’s interest and aptitudes? 

This is what pathways attempt to accomplish. The Colorado Career Cluster Model is just one example that schools can use to anchor their work. It identifies six major career clusters; two examples are Agriculture, Natural Resources, and Energy, as well as Business, Marketing, and Public Administrations. Fountain Middle School has taken these six clusters and created pathways for each one. The pathways include identification of “foundational courses” such as Pre-AP Science or Introduction to Cybersecurity, as well as “supporting courses” such as video production or Project Lead the Way Medical Detectives.

Each of the six identified pathways suggest which foundational and supporting courses will allow students to best explore that pathway. Each pathway also outlines which supporting activities and clubs students are recommended to explore, such as the robotics team or creative writing club. Finally, upon entering the comprehensive high school, each pathway leads to opportunities aligned with that pathway upon entering high school. For example, the Business, Marketing, and Public Administration Pathway is aligned with the Finance and Accounting Pathway in high school. 

Collectively, by reframing the concept of postsecondary readiness to focus on high school readiness and pathway alignment, middle level schools can more effectively prepare students for the environments they will face upon leaving the comforts and supports of a middle level environment. 

How will you reframe the conversation of postsecondary readiness to meet the evolving needs of all students? What role does your middle level school play in this development?

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