Middle School Mystery

Flagstaff, AZ – Middle School - an awkward time period when parts of your body are growing faster than other parts, you embarrass easily and suddenly you're incredibly aware of the opposite sex.

Walking through the hall at Flagstaff Middle School it all comes back. It's no wonder parents and educators are dealing delicately with these adolescent years.

EBERHARD: Chris, wait up!

It's lunchtime. And seventh grader Josh Eberhard is hanging out with his friends.

EBERHARD: It's really fun. We play basketball and do lots of stuff and like I know almost everybody so it's really fun. Anything you don't like about it? There's lots of homework.

Assistant principal Chris Fonoti says it's a difficult age.

FONOTI: A lot of it has to do with hormones and just change in attitude, the idea that high school is waiting for them. So I think it's a scary time for parents because kids are unpredictable.

Terri Ault has three children at the public schools, her youngest at Flagstaff Middle. Ault says when it came time for middle school she was worried.

AULT: It was really scary coming into from elementary schools because they are so supervised. My biggest way to ease my concerns were being as involved as I could. I don't think it's gotten the credit it deserves for the school that it is.

While Terri Ault has chosen to send her kids to the mainstream public schools, over the past year more than 200 parents have taken a different route. Assistant principal Chris Fonoti says since the drop in enrollment Flagstaff Middle School has lost some state funding. Four teachers retired last year and the school chose not to fill those openings. So class sizes have increased slightly.

That's not the case at Northland Preparatory Academy, one of several Flagstaff charter schools. Lisa Ganey sent her son to a public elementary school but decided Northland Prep was a better fit for him for seventh grade.

GANEY: It feels safer to me. The size of the school has a great deal to do with it because you fear they're going to get lost in a large school that they're just going to fade into the background.

The class size at Northland Prep ranges from five to the low 20s. School officials say there are about 30 students on the waiting list for seventh grade. Parents, like Ganey, appreciate the academic focus.

GANEY: One of the things that attracted us to Northland Prep was that the culture among the kids at the school encouraged you to do well. It is cool to get good grades there. The math department sells T-shirts that say 'it's ok to like math' in great big letters on the shirt. Kids wear them to school.

Marlane Spencer runs the Montessori charter schools in Flagstaff. She and other charter middle school administrators also report waiting lists at their schools.

SPENCER: The main concern for parents is that they're afraid for their child. They're afraid of the bullies. They're afraid of the drugs. They're afraid their child is going to get lost. They're afraid their child is not going to be taken care of.

Many parents are concerned for their children's safety. The Flagstaff Police Department has made almost a hundred arrests at Flagstaff and Mount Elden middle schools combined in the last year. Sergeant Tom Bougner points out that those arrests could be during off hours and may not involve students. He says FUSD has taken a no tolerance stance on crime and every incident no matter how small is reported.

Chris Fonoti says despite the number of arrests, her school is safe.

FONOTI: I would encourage parents to come and check it out for themselves. I think you can walk the halls at anytime and what you'll see is friendly faces. It's a good feeling. You don't have that sense of I've got to be careful.

Still FUSD and the Flagstaff Police Department are looking at funding for police officers for the middle and high schools

For the last couple months FUSD assistant superintendent Bob Boothe has been coming up with ways to improve the public schools.

BOOTHE: Public schools across this country have not done a good job of promoting their own product because historically for many years you were the only show in town. There wasn't competition. Once we have them in the door they realize, 'gee this is a great educational experience,' and so we don't lose them. It's getting them in the door to experience what we have to offer. That's the challenge right now.

In addition to changing the perception, Boothe also recommends strengthening the accelerated programs within each school, consolidating the special ed programs and exploring the K-8 model.

Boothe says he understands parents want their child to be treated as a unique individual. But he says the public schools have more to offer.

BOOTHE: We happen to think the Flagstaff public schools have a greater variety of offerings related to extracurricular activities and so forth and a highly qualified teacher base.

At Montessori middle school 13-year-old Carly Salas says she's tried a mainstream school but she likes the charter better.

SALAS: The teachers do pay a lot more attention to you and they help you. They don't just treat you like everybody else. They treat you like an individual.

Parent Lisa Ganey from Northland Preparatory Academy says it all comes down to having choices.

GANEY: I think you have to look at what's best for your child. For some kids a small environment like NPA would be awful for them. It's little. Maybe there wouldn't be enough activities for them. It's not good for everybody. When you find something that you think is the best thing for your kid you have to go with it.

For Arizona Public Radio I'm Laurel Morales in Flagstaff.