Before a lesson in pronouns, New Renaissance Middle School teacher Solmarie Ortiz starts her language arts class with a pretzel.
Her students stand up and cross outstretched arms into a tangle of wrists and interlaced fingers. As they stretch, she tells them to slowly breathe in and breathe out as they repeat, “I’m going to make it, with a smile on my face.”
Afterward, her students take out sticky notes to jot down a “wish well.” It’s a quick description of something happening in their life that could be made a little easier by encouragement from classmates.
One student writes about moving to a new house. Another student’s father has broken ribs. Another misses an out-of-town brother. All the “wish wells” are stuck to the wall, creating a collage of overlapping concerns that the students can help each other face, together.
These sticky notes and student stretches are much more than a few feel-good moments before a class tackles the proper uses of “he,” “him” and “his.”
The teaching techniques are part of a bold new effort to help students across Broward rise above outside problems they bring to school – so they can succeed in the classroom.
The Community Foundation of Broward has partnered with Broward County Public Schools to lead this innovative reimagining of middle school education, which could become a model for the nation.
Research shows that middle school is a critical pivot point where students who fall behind academically can end up in a downward spiral that leads to dropping out.
To improve graduation rates, the Community Foundation’s School is Cool initiative helps Broward County Public Schools get struggling six, seventh and eighth graders back on track to graduation.
Thanks to the support of Fundholders committed to education, the School is Cool initiative targets students who are having the most problems with attendance, behavior and course performance in reading and math.
The Foundation’s largest ever grant – $3 million spread over three years – is being matched by the school district to improve local middle schools.
“Middle school is where we lose kids,” School Board Member Donna Korn said. “Without the Community Foundation, we could not do this.”
Korn joined a group of Foundation staffers who got a firsthand look at how this $6 million partnership has begun to transform middle schools.
The group visited New Renaissance Middle School in Miramar – one of 10 schools involved in the reimagining-middle-schools pilot program launched this school year. The group saw how more teachers have begun to use social-emotional teaching strategies – such as the morning stretch and sticky notes in Ms. Ortiz’s class – to foster a warm, safe environment where children are more open to learning.
They also saw teachers emphasize project-based learning – which presents real-life, problem-solving scenarios to get students engaged in learning about math, science and other subjects.
In one classroom, a taped-off portion of the floor shows the dimensions of a studio apartment. Students walk in to visualize the cramped quarters and then work in groups on budgets and designs to furnish the would-be home.
These teaching approaches seek to make education more relevant, purposeful and useful to students. They also aim to avoid student alienation that leads to resentment and can result in academic and behavioral problems.
Thanks to the Foundation and school district partnership, the 10 schools in the pilot program have been able to start hiring more counselors and community liaisons to work with the students most in need of extra help.
The partnership also pays to train more teachers to use projectbased learning and social-emotional learning techniques. The next step is to expand training to more teachers so more students can benefit from that kind of learning.
As the end of the school year approaches, student performance results will determine what changes to the pilot program may be needed to help more students thrive.
If successful, the school district plans to eventually expand the program to students in all 45 of Broward’s middle schools.
“We want to ensure that there’s long-term sustainability of these great programs,” said Sheri Brown, the Community Foundation’s vice president of grants and initiatives. “Get these kids, who need the most help, on track to graduation.”
To learn how your philanthropy can help transform middle schools, contact Vice President of Philanthropic Services Nancy Thies at firstname.lastname@example.org or 954-761-9503.