Children At Risk: Middle School

By Lawrence Hardy

It’s spirit week -- not to mention Halloween Eve -- and McGinnis Middle School is in a festive mood. Before the first bell, a secretary hawks Marti Gras beads from her office desk while a teacher strides in sporting a huge, floppy “Dr. Seuss” hat and feathery pink boa. She promptly proclaims herself best accessorized of the staff.

Outside on the asphalt playground, in front of the century-old building, children gather in small groups in the dappled morning sunlight and chatter excitedly about the weekend ahead. The atmosphere may be lighthearted and friendly at this 1,300-student middle school in Perth Amboy, N.J., but it’s not undisciplined.

“Students, please start lining up outside at the playground,” says a friendly but authoritative voice on the public address system. “Staff, walk to lockers and classrooms.”

Staff members lead the students, who are wearing identical red and gray polo shirts, in lines to their lockers and first-period classes. On the surface, this procedure seems unusual for a middle school, where students are generally given more freedom, but it’s the way Principal Ana Maria Mascenik wants it.

When Mascenik became principal in the fall of 2007, she asked teachers what they liked and disliked about their large urban middle school, which serves grades five through eight. Discipline was the number one problem, as students regularly cut class.

“The kids just disappeared,” Mascenik says.

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