Members of the Governor's Commission on Middle Grades -- including (left to right) Independence Middle math teacher Fred Farris, Monongah Middle math teacher Stacey Strawderman and Fairview Middle Principal Steve Rodriguez -- listen during the group's first meeting in Charleston.
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- A 19-member task force appointed by Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin started a six-month review of West Virginia's middle schools Tuesday, with plans to suggest ways to boost student achievement and keep kids from dropping out.
The commission's work follows Tomblin's education reform bill that state lawmakers passed earlier this year.
"Research shows middle school is a time when many students are at a critical crossroads," Tomblin told members of the Governor's Commission on Middle Grades during a meeting at the state Capitol. "I believe, together, we can put these young minds on the path to educational and career success by making the connection between the students' personal interest and future career opportunities."
State legislators, middle school teachers and principals, higher education officials, school superintendents and state employment training program administrators are serving on the middle school panel.
Representatives from the Southern Regional Education Board presented research on middle schools to the commission Tuesday.
The percentage of West Virginia eighth-graders who scored at or above basic levels in reading on a nationwide exam has decreased by four points over the past decade, according to National Assessment of Educational Progress results.
West Virginia's eighth grade math scores on the same exam increased by two points since 2003, but students nationally improved at a faster rate.
"It's long overdue that we focus on middle schools," said Delegate Dave Perry, D-Fayette, a retired middle school principal.
A recent Southern Regional Education Board report suggests that successful middle schools help faculty members improve their expertise in math, science and other subjects. Such schools also incorporate literacy -- students' ability to read, analyze and comprehend a range of materials -- in all classes.
The SREB report recommends that schools do more to engage students in science, technology, engineering and math. Middle school counselors also should help students develop career plans, according to the report.
"This is a wonderful opportunity to reconnect our students to education," said Kathy D'Antoni, an assistant superintendent at the state Department of Education.
Fellow commission members said they hope to suggest ways to improve "the middle school experience" for students.
Schools must identify middle school students likely to drop out during high school, they said. Warning signs include chronic absenteeism, bad behavior and poor grades.
Wilma Zigmond, who recently retired as Logan County's school superintendent, said middle school students struggle with rapidly changing minds and bodies.
"That's when children make too many crazy decisions," said Zigmond, who heads the governor's task force.
The commission plans to set up subcommittees to study school leadership, student engagement and curriculum.
Tomblin has asked the commission to submit recommendations for improving West Virginia's middle schools by Jan. 15, the start of the regular legislative session.
Reach Eric Eyre at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-4869.