Monday, Oct. 19, 2009 | Preteens scrambled to put the finishing touches on their water rockets after the first bell rang at Marston Middle School. A girl with braces tied string onto a plastic parachute; two boys checked the tape on a plastic soda bottle labeled “The Green Angels.”

“Hey guys — let’s head out!” teacher Tom Pineda called out over the commotion.

The class was advisory — a morning ritual that parents might know as homeroom — but it sure didn’t look like what kids were used to. Instead of powwowing with a teacher over school announcements and issues, students split up into different classes based on their success in school.

Kids who were flourishing did fun, educational activities such as cartooning, called explorations. Kids who struggled got a second chance to go over the ideas they tussled with, called interventions. And kids who had neglected to turn in all their schoolwork were finishing up their assignments in study hall.

Last year, “we’d sit around and do homework, or sit down and do nothing. Maybe read books,” said Jose Mendez, a 7th grader at Marston. “This is fun. And you do a lot of work.”

Mendez hurried out into the sunshine to watch the rockets shoot skyward. One door down at the Clairemont school, students were hunched over textbooks, copying down scientific terms. If they aced their test at the end of the week, they’d get a chance to try their hand at water rockets or something else, choosing from a menu of ungraded classes that range from Japanese anime to fitness to yearbook.

Marston is trying out a dramatic rethinking of advisory, better known as homeroom, which was once the cornerstone of middle school. It was originally imagined as a time and place for adolescents to meet with a teacher who’d talk about bullying, getting along with classmates or other social and emotional issues. The teacher would be students’ advocate. It was meant to be more nurturing than a high school homeroom.

Setting aside time for that guidance was part of the broader scheme for middle schools to cater to the unique needs of early adolescents, a mission that has since been criticized for neglecting academics. Principal Elizabeth Cook said the 17-minute classes last year fell short of the ideal, sometimes devolving into a series of announcements and activities that differed from room to room.

“Some advisories were very beneficial,” Cook said. “And some were kind of a waste of time.”

So Marston redrew its schedule. It lengthened advisory from 17 to 35 minutes, trimming three minutes from each class period to make it work. Teachers took tips from a middle school in Yucaipa that had shown off its program at the California League of Middle Schools conference. And they devised fun classes based on their interests that kids could sign up for, from friendship bracelets to chess.

The result is a kind of academic triage. Every three weeks, kids take a common assessment designed by teachers, ranging from a quiz to a project, which measures what they were supposed to learn. If a child struggles, they spend the next three weeks revisiting the ideas they tussled with. If they succeed, they get a fun class to explore their interests. And if they fail to turn in work, they head to study hall.

“Before, there was no price for how well or poorly they did — other than a letter grade,” said Lauren Ezell, a 7th grade science teacher. “But at this age, water rockets mean more to them than a C.”

Teachers have some leeway: If a child with lagging scores has put in extraordinary effort, they could let them into exploration. If they coast, they might have to revisit the material anyway. Cook cautions that intervention is not a punishment, but teachers say kids are eager to master classes so they can spend weeks exercising or drawing instead of relearning the same things. A brochure that asks “Want an EXPLORATION Experience Every Time?” counsels them to do their homework and get tutoring for help.

“It’s more relevant to them. It’s immediate. There are consequences,” said teacher Tricia Otterman, who chairs the Marston math department.

Marston isn’t alone, but neither is it the norm. Some San Diego middle schools are trying programs similar to Marston; others are keeping its original idea of nurturing students intact, linking kids to the same advisory teacher for all three years of middle school. There is no single curriculum for advisory in San Diego Unified, nor a set plan.

But the erosion of advisory worries some middle school advocates, who argue that the pendulum has swung too far towards academics and away from systematically addressing social and emotional needs in middle schools. Many link the trend to No Child Left Behind and the pressure it puts on schools to boost scores.

“Advisory has been the No. 1 thing that has been chiseled away in the last five years,” said Jack Berckemeyer, assistant executive director of the National Middle Schools Association. And the reason? “Time.”

The Obama Administration has zeroed in on the idea of lengthening the school day or the school year to add in more instructional time, which has been shown to help disadvantaged students. Schools have also tried to make time by cutting other activities. That push has dovetailed with the desire to intervene during the school day with children who are flailing, instead of waiting until the end of the year.

But Irvin Howard, state director for the California Schools to Watch program, which highlights stellar schools, worried that middle schoolers would be discouraged by the system.

“When you provide those kinds of creative outlets for kids who are doing well and deny it to the kids who aren’t doing well, you’re punishing them,” he said. “What do those kids have to look forward to?”

Another school that has tried revamping advisory says it has shown promise. Jeff Litel, principal of Park View Middle in Yucaipa, said test scores grew significantly in every subject except for math after the school began splitting kids into different, flexible groups during advisory last year. He believes the pace of the short classes might have been too much in math.

Litel said students who persistently struggle are given a break from time to time to take fun classes. “We don’t use this punitively,” Litel said.

Marston counselor Joni Rullo said she wasn’t worried about meeting kids’ social and emotional needs; issues such as bullying could still be addressed in other classes. Kids figure out who they are by making choices, Cook said, and this program lets them dip a toe in a wide range of activities. The special classes are also smaller. And the water rockets will be there next week, for the next kids who make the grade.

Please contact Emily Alpert directly at and follow her on Twitter: And set the tone of the debate with a letter to the editor.

Emily Alpert was formerly the education reporter for Voice of San Diego.

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