McMurray Middle School is a place of learning and excitement

There is such a resonate blast of kinetic energy emanating from the building, it could almost be mistaken for an electric power substation. But it is a place even more highly charged. It’s McMurray Middle School.

And when you open the front doors, the sense of it all envelops you. This is the wonderful glory of youth on a regular fussy, messy, musky, creative, confused and brilliant day.

It’s a hard job, when you think about it, to be a middle-schooler. It’s a time of growth and discovery and uncertainty.

We send our kids into this place to learn math or science, and eat a good lunch, perhaps not fully considering all that their day entails — the drama, the hi-jinks and the peaks and valleys of blood sugar.

Add to that the hormone factor, the flu factor and the fiscal reality of smaller operating budgets, staff cuts and supply shortages.

One might tend to wonder, does educating get done? The answer is yes. Not only do these kids learn, but as it turns out, they repeatedly excel.

It’s the result of constant “reviewing, assessing, tweaking, then revamping and assessing” in accordance with national and state research and “best practices” in successful middle schools.

This process has proven to be highly beneficial for the students at McMurray Middle School. Several of the school’s programs grew directly out of a book study instigated by the entire middle school staff and shepherded by principal Greg Allison, counselor Carolyn Zike and a team of teachers.

Allison notes one excellent example of the initiative — the student-led conferences, which take place during March.

Begun three years ago, they require the preparation of a portfolio by every student. Then the student leads a conference, which includes a presentation, to his or her parents.

The student portfolio includes test scores, report cards, WASL tests and a selection of the student’s own work, from essays to projects to even short music recitals.

“It’s much more than a collection of work and scores,” said Allison. “It’s a review of academic and personal smart goals that kids set for themselves with guidance from advisors. While putting together their conference materials, they are also guided through a process of self-reflection and identification of their learning style. It even opens up career pathways. This year’s eighth-graders will be making their third presentation, and we’ve seen a leap in their confidence each year.”

Allison said attendance by parents is always well over 90 percent and feedback is positive, making it a success for everyone.

Another successful initiative is Challenge Day, which takes place the first week of school. This program grew out of a statewide anti-bullying agenda several years ago.

Challenge Day enables each multi-grade homeroom to develop its own “community” and set a positive tone for the year. The agenda is followed throughout the year with weekly extended homeroom periods when discussions and community building continue.

According to student surveys, reports of bullying are down more than 50 percent in the last five years. And McMurray is meeting its goal of providing a safe and good environment to learn and thrive.

Additional best practice programs include the Science Fair and, new this year, a workshop model for teaching literacy.

So, it turns out all that high energy at McMurray isn’t coming just from the kids.

The school is a hub of high expectations met with high success. A place where a lot gets accomplished in the course of the day.

And if your kids weren’t so busy texting their friends, that’s what they’d tell you.

— Margaret Heffelfinger is a freelance writer living on Vashon.

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