There is a difference in what we call schools for preteens, and it's a change the Fargo-Moorhead-West Fargo school districts fully embraced 15 years ago with two new schools.

In August 2004, West Fargo opened Cheney Middle School and Moorhead opened Horizon Middle School, which both housed students in grades six through eight. Fargo already had two buildings designed as middle schools while plans were underway for the opening of its third middle school, Carl Ben Eielson, in 2006.

While buildings and grade configurations are often the most visual components of middle schools — junior high is most likely to include seventh to eighth grade, while middle school can be fifth or sixth grade to eighth grade — it’s the educational philosophy that makes them most different. Middle schools are not necessarily defined by the grades they serve or the school design.

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The middle school moniker has been the victim of false advertising in some places, Al Summers, director of professional development at the National Middle School Association, told The Forum in 2004.

“In a lot of places, it’s just a name change,” he said.

But in an ideal world, middle school is not interchangeable with junior high.

While the middle school movement began in the 1960s, by the 1970s when this photo was taken at Fargo's Agassiz Junior High, only about a third of preteen schools were considered "middle schools" while two-thirds were considered "junior highs." By 2000, the numbers had been reversed, with about 69 percent of schools using the "middle school" philosophy. Special to The Forum
While the middle school movement began in the 1960s, by the 1970s when this photo was taken at Fargo's Agassiz Junior High, only about a third of preteen schools were considered "middle schools" while two-thirds were considered "junior highs." By 2000, the numbers had been reversed, with about 69 percent of schools using the "middle school" philosophy. Special to The Forum

In a junior high, adolescents are taught as if they are small versions of high school students. Classes are organized by departments or subject areas. There are few relationships between a student’s science, history and math classes.

Middle school is about making connections, both the academic and social kind. To foster academic connections, three or four teachers work as a team to integrate lessons. For example, a math teacher may teach the fundamentals of graphing. At the same time, the lesson would be reinforced as students graph population growth in social studies and write their interpretations of graphs in English.

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In the years leading up to 2004, teachers in the region received training in middle school philosophies. Each summer, Moorhead, Fargo and West Fargo sponsored an annual middle school conference. Individual districts also offered training to certify teachers in the grade levels.

Landscapers Jack Strehlow, left, and Mike Bergquist prepare to lay sod in front of the new Horizon Middle School in Moorhead in August 2004. Forum file photo
Landscapers Jack Strehlow, left, and Mike Bergquist prepare to lay sod in front of the new Horizon Middle School in Moorhead in August 2004. Forum file photo

While West Fargo and Fargo middle school teachers incorporated team teaching and integrated learning prior to 2004, what had been missing was the physical space that helped support those techniques. The design of a school can make it easier to incorporate the middle school philosophy, Summers told The Forum.

Schools organized in houses or pods create a more intimate environment where students and teachers get to know each other. Each house or pod consists of 120 to 150 students who share the same teachers for core subjects — mathematics, social studies, language arts and science.

With some of the first students to attend Cheney Middle School and Horizon Middle School now in their mid- to late 20s and becoming parents themselves, the days of adults calling schools "junior high" are most definitely on the way out.