CMS seeks to unite students, teachers, parents

Saturday, October 18, 2003

It's a program that began with three simple principles: unity of purpose, empowerment of responsibility and building on strengths.

A professor at Columbia University Teachers College set them forth in 1987. After 16 years, they've arrived in Cape Girardeau as the basis for an accelerated schools project that promises to unite the parents, students and teachers at Central Middle School and turn the relatively new school into an educational powerhouse.

The program is a little light on details so far -- it's only in its first of at least three years at Central Middle School. But the concept is that it will transform the school from a building where classes happen into a corporate body with one purpose.

That's a program the school could use. It didn't exist prior to the 2002-2003 school year, when the district siphoned fifth and sixth grades out of elementary schools and placed them in what used to be the junior high school building on the corner of Thilenius Street and Caruthers Avenue. It was part of a reorganization effort that would open a new high school, free up elementary classrooms and group appropriate grade levels together in the same building.

Six hundred students. Fifty teachers. Most were strangers to each other, and many had left comfortable and long-standing friendships at their old elementary schools.

Central Middle School was looking for an identity and a way to make an ideal school, two challenges that called for the accelerated schools program, offered through the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

The program unified the teachers from the beginning. In order to receive a $75,000 grant to fund accelerated schools, professional development and other costs, 80 percent of teachers had to vote in favor. They did so, and they learned over the summer that they were successful.

The next step was getting students to write down their ideas for the ideal school, which included some silly ones, such as using a hovercraft, and some great ones, such as buying more computers.

Now teachers have some steps to follow: develop a common vision, take stock of their strengths and weaknesses, set priorities for improving student achievement and parental involvement, develop steering committees and teacher teams known as "cadres" and develop solutions and an action plan to improve the school.

That's a tall order, and those middle school educators deserve applause for agreeing to take on the challenge. Their commitment demonstrates their enthusiasm for effective teaching. While there are no other Cape Girardeau schools involved in the program, they may be able to get help from their peers at schools in Bloomfield, Chaffee, Oak Ridge and Oran, who also are participating.

Parents and the rest of the community will be eager to see what they come up with specifically to accelerate Central Middle School.

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