Anthropologist Margaret Mead once said that ``junior high school students are more unlike each other than they ever have been before or ever will be again in the course of their lives.'' It is in recognition of this fact that educators call for such qualities as flexibility, diversity, and choice to receive special emphasis during the years between elementary and high school educations. Not only are students undergoing great physical and developmental changes, but for many of them it is the last point in their academic careers at which they will be exposed to a full spectrum of course options and potential lifelong pursuits. Both requirements and electives often become more focused once students move on to high school.
In Minneapolis, a city long known for educational innovation, a desire to accommodate the variety in adolescent students -- and in their parents' vision of education -- has led to a wide range of schools and styles in education.
``When it comes to configurations and styles, whatever you name we have it -- or have had it,'' says Duane Eklin, an assistant to the Minneapolis schools' operations superintendant. ``Ours is an area that not only supports education but is constantly open to ways of improving it,'' Dr. Eklin says. He adds that a ``certain influx'' of minority families in the late '60s and early '70s -- principally blacks, Southeast Asians, and American Indians -- led the city to ``work harder to involve everyone'' in meeting the educational needs of children. The Minneapolis schools now have about 30 percent minority students.
The programs serving the city's roughly 5,500 seventh- and eighth-graders fall into three basic categories: ``fundamental,'' or back-to-basics (one student called it ``hard nosed''); ``open,'' which emphasizes student-centered learning and interdisciplinary programs; and ``contemporary,'' or traditional junior high school.
A fourth category, the ``free'' school -- a modern version of the ``one-room schoolhouse,'' where fewer than 200 students ranging from kindergarten to high school learned together -- was eliminated this year. Junior high principals are now calling for creation of an ``alternative'' junior high school, where students having serious discipline problems or who are repeat truants could benefit from programs featuring more individual attention or are designed for short attention spans.
In Minneapolis, the junior high schools comprise only the seventh and eighth grades, having lost ninth-grade classes to the city's high schools in a major systemwide reorganization several years ago. School administrators say desegregation orders and profitable use of the better-equipped high schools dictated a shift from the three-year to a two-year junior high. Still, not all principals see that shift as having been in the best interests of the city's students.
Betty Jo Webb is principal of Franklin Junior High School, a ``contemporary,'' or comprehensive, school with just over 800 students in a modern, spacious building. The school is traditional in that it uses bells and 50-minute classes broken up by a lunch period.
Based on administrative experience in high school and junior high, Ms. Webb says she prefers the 7-to-9 junior high because she believes maturing ninth-grade students act as positive role models for the underclassmen. Moreover, she believes ninth-graders are often too young for the strict subject-matter orientation of high school.
Nevertheless, she says, it's ultimately not the configuration of classes that determines whether a school works. ``We need to just stop and focus on how kids learn, and bring in a staff that understands that,'' she says. As an example of the challenges facing junior high educators, she cites the English teacher who has students reading at the fourth- and 12th-grade levels -- and everything in between. The answer, she says, is a staff that is flexible and energetic enough to use resources to help meet individual needs.
Across town at Anthony Junior High School, principal Rachel Leonard heads another comprehensive junior high. Not one to rock any boats, Ms. Leonard says she liked the 7-to-9 configuration, but that 7-8 is fine, too.
In addition to offering comprehensive requirements and electives in a traditional classroom setting, Anthony has placed a special emphasis on serving gifted students. One result this year is that 13 of the school's students were selected for participation in a special math program at the University of Minnesota for 150 special-talent junior high students from the St. Paul Minneapolis region.
For parents who want a stricter environment for their children and closer contact with the school, both Franklin and Anthony offer ``fundamental'' schools. Corporal punishment is allowed, more homework is required than in the traditional setting, and parents must agree to play a daily role in their child's education. In addition, foreign language study is required, whereas it is elective in the traditional schools.
A parents' guide to the Minneapolis schools stresses that the choice of a particular program is up to parents and their children. But this is not quite true, since waiting lists are long for many of the nontraditional programs. At both the Anthony fundamental school, with 175 students, and Franklin fundamental, with about 100 students, the waiting list tops 100 names.
And it's not just the ``back-to-basics'' programs that are unable to meet demand. The Barton School, an ``open'' program in a K-8 setting, also has a waiting list of more than 100 names.
Although many of the goals of the Barton School parallel those of the fundamental schools -- parental involvement, mastery of basics -- the tone is a world apart. Barton students all know principal Barbara Bellair as ``Barb''; courses are often interdisciplinary, with students spending large blocks of time with one teacher; and individual projects and experimentation are encouraged.
Ms. Bellair says experience as a math teacher and administrator at all levels has convinced her of the K-8 school's validity. ``I really feel now that it's the way to go -- and especially for the junior-high-age kids,'' she says. ``Here they can remain children longer, they aren't confronted with drugs and sex so soon -- and we can focus on the academics better.''
Does this mean they aren't prepared to enter high school when the time comes? ``Not at all,'' she says, ``because we emphasize choices and consequences.''
Seated at a desk in one of Barton's beehive-active classrooms, a seventh-grade boy busy on a math assignment is just one example of the value of variety in Minneapolis programs for early adolescents. Having started out at a traditional junior high, the boy responded to his dislike for the school by missing classes. Finally he stopped going altogether.
This year at Barton, he hasn't missed a day. Asked what made the difference, his eyes dart, narrow, then brighten and widen: ``I guess I like they way they teach here better. This school feels kind of like home.'' --