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Giving Them Wings
Maplewood Middle School helps kids become teens
by Elaine Durbach

Out front of Maplewood Middle School is
principal Dr. James
There are about 800 students at Maplewood Middle School. If you have young children, you're probably expecting to see them join those ranks within the next few years, unless they're going to private school. Yet we hear very little about MMS. Grades six, seven and eight aren't the time for spectacular scholastic and sporting achievements or for catastrophic discipline problems. The basics have been mastered, but college entrance doesn't yet loom as a concern, and neither does the traumas of learning to drive. But the challenges handled by middle schools are tougher in many ways than those facing either elementary or high schools, and MMS takes them very seriously.

As Maplewood Middle School principal James Corino, Ph.D., says, his students are facing physical, emotional, intellectual and social changes. The school's task is to help these young people work out who they are, strengthen their values and nurture their emerging passions. He believes in doing that with as few rules and as much encouragement as possible.

"We're very lucky, because Maplewood is such a strong community, and we've been getting tremendous support," Corino says. Since joining the staff three years ago, he has seen growing participation from parents and from other members of the community, as role models coming to address students and as a resource of professional skills.

Shoshona Nimaroff

Some students have described their time at the school as a turning point, a time when they came into their own. "I thought the school was really ugly when I first came," recalls Shoshona Nimaroff, who has just moved on to Columbia. "I didn't like it at all. But then I got used to it, and I got to know the teachers, and they were really nice. Now I think it's a very good school, though it could still do with some renovation!"

"It's like everything else," comments the mother of a disgruntled eighth grader. "I've told my son, `You get out of it what you put in.' If he doesn't join something, one of the clubs or activities, he's going to get trampled underfoot."

According to Corino and his staff, no one should get lost in the shuffle that way, even those who try to disappear. For kids coming from the more personal setting of the elementary schools, the size of the middle school is their first problem. So, following the philosophy spelled out in a 1985 Carnegie Foundation report on middle school education, MMS is structured to create more intimate groupings.

The potentially overwhelming mass of 800 is divided into A and B teams, and every grade within those teams has different sections. A core team of teachers, in addition to others, instructs each section, and the team meets frequently to compare notes and strategize on how best to handle their young charges.

Zachary Gruber

Their pooled knowledge can come as a surprise to the kids. Seventh grader John Karatheodoris says with a laugh, "They know things you think they wouldn't know, like how you were goofing off in another class!" They also know about talents that might not have shown up in their own lessons.

Ron Witting has a unique perspective on how the school has evolved. He joined the staff 35 years ago and has helped forge the more personalized, team-teaching approach. He says it ensures that if a child is in need of academic or emotional help, someone will spot that. It also means teachers are more likely to learn how best to play to each child's strengths, an approach in line with the Multiple Intelligences system being introduced in our elementary schools.

"It works so well, they're starting to consider using something like this in the high schools," Corino says.

Unlike so many adults, Witting believes today's adolescents are no wilder or less respectful than their parents were. "In the early '70s, when using drugs and drinking was almost condoned by the parents, there was probably more disrespect for authority than there is today."

What has changed, he says, is family structure: "There are so many more single parent families, and that causes a lot of problems for the kids," he says.

Student Counselor
Beth Giladi

Guidance Counselor Beth Giladi says she came to teach at MMS because of how well it handles middle school issues. Earlier this year, she launched a girls' leadership program to help some of the most troubled eighth graders, and she has been excited by the response.

Her program is one of many special efforts run by the teachers to inspire the students and broaden their horizons. The Martin Luther King Cultural Horizons Club is another. Started 10 years ago by Hope Taylor-McGriff, who still runs it, the club brings leading figures in the local community to talk with the students and involves the members in various challenging service projects. There are also programs offering mentoring, peer mediation training, drug counseling, civic leadership, music, drama and other social and cultural activities.

Zachary Gruber, who has just moved from MMS to Columbia, says his time at the school helped him become more sociable and communicative. He had

John Karatheodoris
come from Seth Boyden and knew few of his new classmates, but the structure made it easy for him to find his way. He was also given the chance to develop his personal passion for working with lighting and sound, something he hopes to take even further in high school.

"At the beginning, we had to try out different sports," he says. "But if we showed we weren't interested, we weren't forced to do them. I joined the sound and stage crew, and I got to work on the drama productions and assemblies. I want to be a DJ, so it was great!"

Gruber admits to being nervous about going to Columbia, but he, Nimaroff and the other graduates were given orientation sessions to help them with the transition. For those coming into the middle school, there is help and reassurance too. Karatheodoris says he was scared that it'd be difficult to handle a locker and find all the different classrooms, but it turned out to be much easier than expected, logistically, academically and socially.

Corino says he prefers to avoid having a lot of rules, and his students admit that's true. Instead, there are some key values, such as respect for oneself and others, for the school and for learning, that gently steer these young souls. The sign in the hallway says, "We care. We work. We succeed." And for most, that seems true.

Elaine Durbach, whose son is just starting first grade, says working on this article made her feel reassured about what lies ahead of him.

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