Middle school is tough for students. It's tough for teachers, too.
Educators say those years are critical to a student's future success. But schools often fail to work effectively with children who are in that awkward middle stage of youth -- no longer interested in pleasing teachers but not yet focused on preparing for adult life.
"Middle school is a challenging time, when students are adjusting to many social and emotional changes in their lives," said Clovis Unified Superintendent David Cash. "In the midst of these changes, school often loses its relevancy for our middle-school students."
A national coalition of middle-school educators is dedicated to helping teachers do better -- and the group is lavishing praise on Clovis schools for helping to set the standard.
Four of the district's five junior high schools have now earned three-year "Schools To Watch" designations from the Illinois-based National Forum. With news last month that Reyburn Intermediate School had been accepted, Clovis became the only school district in the nation to win the award for all its eligible schools. The district's fifth junior high, Granite Ridge, has not been open long enough to seek the designation.
During a recent meeting in South Carolina of the state's "Schools To Watch" leaders, Clovis Unified was held up as an example of how junior high schools should operate, said Deborah Kasak, the group's executive director.
Up to 50 schools apply for the award each year, said Irv Howard, director of California's Schools to Watch effort. The program sends teams to rate candidate schools on academics, use of technology, extracurricular programs, test-score improvements and how students are encouraged to fit in, he said. The teams interview teachers, students, parents, administrators, school board trustees and community members.
Since the "Schools To Watch" program began 12 years ago, 27 California schools have earned the designation. The four Clovis Unified schools are the only ones in the central San Joaquin Valley that have received the award so far.
Howard said the organization was impressed with how committed Clovis Unified teachers are to their students.
"In a lot of schools, kids get lost, but they don't get lost in Clovis," he said. "Kids said they come to school because they felt their teachers liked them and their teachers cared."
He cited the array of student electives, Alta Sierra's art program, library resources, music programs at all four campuses and Kastner's science program. Howard also was impressed with Reyburn's agricultural curriculum and Clark's "intervention" effort to improve students' progress.
He also observed the commitment by parents in a trip to Clark Intermediate last year. He recalled seeing dozens of parents, who had dropped their children off at school at 6 a.m., stick around -- coffee cups in hand -- to watch them play in band.
"We don't believe that schools can make it by themselves," Howard said. "They need parents, teachers, administrators, the school board and community members ... an uncommon commitment makes these schools succeed."
An influential 2009 Johns Hopkins University study said schools should train teachers to recognize early warning signs that a middle-school student needs help. Finding and helping those students is something Clovis Unified does well and why other districts come to learn more about intermediate school programs that work, said Larry Powell, Fresno County's superintendent of schools.
"The ["Schools To Watch"] program gives a school that is trying to become better a place to go," Powell said. "Nothing substitutes for seeing it in action and seeing someone succeeding that has the same population you do."
Teachers and administrators from other districts -- such as a group of Los Banos educators who toured Alta Sierra last week -- often visit Clovis schools to find ideas.
Paul Enos, principal of Los Banos Junior High School, said he left with a plan to incorporate programs that help students raise their language arts skills to their grade level throughout the school day. This technique, practiced in the Clovis schools, is a recommendation of the Johns Hopkins study.
"If you wait until the end of the day, you lose them," Enos said. "If you build it into the day you have a captive audience."
Alta Sierra's intervention efforts include a small eighth-grade reading and writing class for roughly a dozen students, some of whom start the year two grade levels behind.
"They are the kids who sit in the back and don't raise their hand," said the class's teacher, Sharon Ferguson. "They might as well raise their hand here, because there is no place to hide."
Alta Sierra Principal Devin Blizzard said students who don't get help with reading in junior high school will not be able to keep up with their peers in high school.
Ruben Diaz, principal of Rafer Johnson Middle School in Kingsburg, visited Clark Intermediate and said later that he was impressed by the school's efforts to help students achieve academically.
The school identifies the areas where students need to improve and then focus on helping them reach their grade level, he said.
Clovis schools offer such a variety of activities for students, he said, that students should find something that keeps their interest.
"When kids feel they belong to a school, they put that extra effort into being part of their school," said Diaz, in his first year as Rafer Johnson Middle School principal.
After returning from his Clark visit, Diaz decided to add more student-generated activities -- three new clubs, more school dances and a leadership class. The school also recently added an after-school tutoring program.
"One of the things I told the kids is that it's not my school or the teachers' school, but it's our school and how they represent themselves will create the reputation of Rafer Johnson Middle School."