ST. PETERSBURG, FLA. — SAY ``middle school'' to anyone who has children or who works with them and a ripple of nervous laughter sometimes punctuates the conversation. Parents of 10-to-15-year-olds may roll their eyes in mock horror. And teachers of these students may joke that they should receive combat pay. The stereotype prevails that this is an age to be endured, a stage to be gotten through - the sooner the better for all concerned.
Yet for all the rapid physical and emotional changes taking place, many of these students remain forgotten by communities and schools. Sandwiched between very young children who are protected by parents, child-care centers, or after-school programs, and high school students who enjoy independence through jobs and cars, middle-school students often find themselves with few after-school activities. Too young for a job, too old (they claim) for a baby sitter, many go home to an empty house and hours of boredom. Some find constructive ways to fill their time. Others are drawn to the wrong crowd or unproductive activities.
Here on Florida's Suncoast, this forgotten ``tweenage'' is currently taking center stage at the Juvenile Welfare Board of Pinellas County. Spurred by a Carnegie Corporation report, ``A Matter of Time: Risk and Opportunity in the Nonschool Hours,'' the agency hired a staff member, Renee Jones, to head an innovative project: identifying issues affecting middle-schoolers as well as local organizations that help them.
As she calls communities around the country to learn about other initiatives serving these middle children, Ms. Jones seeks answers to a central question: What does it take for a 10- to 15-year-old to grow into a productive adult?
``Research is telling us that if kids don't get proper guidance, leadership, structure, and support, they will not be whole, balanced adults,'' she says. ``But parents assume that children of this age are safe at home and do not need to be involved in after-school programs. How do we raise parents' awareness that kids do need to be involved in some structured, stimulating program?''
Jones, whose extensive experience in human services includes working with juvenile delinquents, has observed firsthand the worst consequences of neglect and indifference. ``Around the age of 11 or 12, we start to lose some of them,'' she says. ``They show up as RUTs - runaways, ungovernables, and truants.''
Although early adolescence has long been characterized as a time of uncertainty, changing social mores add to the confusion. Activities that once waited until high school - drinking, sex, drugs - now tempt middle-school children. The Carnegie paper reports that three-quarters of eighth-graders say they have used alcohol. Nearly a third claim they have had sexual intercourse.
Adding to the urgent need for more adult guidance and supervision is the report's finding that 40 percent of young adolescents' waking hours involve discretionary time.
In March and April, Jones will hold 15 focus groups for young teens, parents of 10-to-15-year-olds, and youth workers. She wants to hear from students themselves what kind of after-school and weekend activities they want. What do parents need? And what are the characteristics of a good youth worker?
In June, Jones will report her findings to the Juvenile Welfare Board, outlining the needs of children in the middle. Although the board does not run programs, it can allocate money from tax dollars to fund new or expanded programs in Pinellas County. In the process, it could serve as a model for other areas.
Although 17,000 national and local youth organizations currently operate in the United States, according to the Carnegie report, many reach far too few teens. Parents often don't know what is available. Even if they do, lack of transportation can make programs inaccessible to middle-schoolers.
On the wall above Jones's desk at the Juvenile Welfare Board, a poster symbolizes the task before her. As the hands of six children from different ethnic backgrounds reach out to form a circle, the poster states: ``The world is at their fingertips.''
Yet a question remains: What kind of world? One that reaches out and provides support, or one that leaves young people dependent only on their peers, with no adult hands to hold or to guide them?
How communities, schools, churches, and parents themselves answer that question will affect more than just the ``tweenagers.''