Middle-school reform efforts at UF receive $600,000 boost

In the 1960s, University of Florida education researchers helped pioneer the middle school movement, recommending that educators handle a child’s critical formative years in a transitional setting, rather than in the regimented, departmentalized junior-senior high school system.


January 15, 2008



In the 1960s, University of Florida education researchers helped pioneer the middle school movement, recommending that educators handle a child’s critical formative years in a transitional setting, rather than in the regimented, departmentalized junior-senior high school system.

Now, thanks to a $600,000 donation by Fred and Christine Shewey of Gainesville, the university’s College of Education is creating an endowment to support new research and programs aimed at middle school reform and enhancement. The gift is eligible to receive matching state funds that could raise the total value of the gift to $1 million.

Kathey Shewy with her father Fred Shewey

Kathy Shewey wraps her arms around father-in-law Fred Shewey, who, with his wife Christine (now deceased), made a $600,000 donation to UF’s College of Education as a tribute to Kathy’s long career as a middle school education teacher and leader. (Photo by Kristen Bartlett Grace, UF Photography)

Fred Shewey said their donation was made as a tribute to their daughter-in-law, Kathy Shewey, a longtime Alachua County educator who is married to their son, Robert. Christine Shewey, the family matriarch, died in October at age 88, while the couple’s gift was being finalized, but the endowment creating the Shewey Excellence in Middle School Education Fund has been established in both of their names.

“Christine and I wanted to do something special for middle school teachers and students. I was on the school board of Mingo County, West Virginia for 18 years and noticed that middle school kids were truly caught in the middle between elementary and high school in so many ways,” said Fred Shewey, 91, who owned several construction and coal companies in his West Virginia home state before retiring to Gainesville. “We watched Kathy work hard for so many years with middle school teachers and this age group. We wanted to do something to support her efforts.”

Yearly interest earned on the Shewey endowment will fund a bevy of activities and programs designed to improve middle-grades instruction and help educators solve the many hurdles they face while teaching young adolescents.

“Middle school teachers must work with young adolescents at a very precarious time in the students’ lives,” said Nancy Dana, director of the college’s Center for School Improvement, who will steer the activities supported by the Shewey fund. “Research and professional development programs generated by this endowment will support middle-grades teachers in their quest to continually improve their instruction and understand the unique issues facing young adolescents. The results will directly impact hundreds of teachers and their students each year.”

Dana heads an advisory group that will plan and oversee the Shewey Fund programs. The group also includes: Kathy Shewey, who is supervisor of staff development for Alachua County public schools; Paul George, a UF distinguished professor emeritus in education who has been identified by Middle School Journal as the nation’s “number-one ranking scholar” in middle grades education; and Diane Yendol-Hoppey, an associate professor of education specializing in teacher leadership and professional development.

Kathey Shewy with her father Fred Shewey

Kathy Shewey (front) is flanked by COE faculty scholars who serve with her on the Shewey Fund advisory group (pictured, from left): Diane Yendol-Hoppey, Nancy Dana and Paul George. (Staff photo by Larry Lansford)

Kathy Shewey’s career as a middle school teacher, researcher, team leader and district administrator spans four decades. She has educated Alachua County students for more than 37 years—at Kanapaha Middle School and Lincoln Middle School in Gainesville, Spring Hill Middle School in High Springs, and one year at Santa Fe High School in Alachua. The National Middle School Association (NMSA) in November awarded her its Distinguished Educator Award for her significant contributions to middle school education.

While UF scholars—including Paul George—were among the first, some 40 years ago, to campaign for the creation of separate schools to meet the needs of children in early adolescence, they also are among the first to publicly call for reform and a reexamination of middle schools in today’s school system. George recently headed a panel of Florida educators that produced an assessment of critical issues for middle school reform in Florida.

“Many middle schools are no longer serving their original function,” said George, who retired from teaching last year but continues to conduct research in his specialty field. “Many schools are too large and too focused on standardized testing to meet the special developmental needs of adolescents. We will look at ways to improve instruction that is appropriate for students in their early teens.”

Paul George and Kathy Shewey are no strangers. Shewey studied under George while earning her master’s degree in secondary education at UF in 1977. The NMSA also published a monograph they co-authored in 1994, summarizing research on middle schools’ effectiveness.

“The Sheweys’ endowment not only honors Kathy’s accomplished career, but also lets us draw on her expertise and on her ties with Alachua County public schools,” George said.

Dana said initial plans focus on improving teacher leadership and “raising teachers’ voices” to improve middle schools from within.

“Our Center for School Improvement has done a lot of work promoting teacher leadership in Florida elementary schools. We are now poised to bring middle school teachers together to focus on the unique nature of young adolescents and addressing their needs,” Dana said.

She said plans call for creating a statewide network of middle school teachers engaged in a combination of job-embedded professional development activities. For example, small groups of teachers will meet to engage in book study, reading and discussing contemporary books targeted at teaching and reaching middle school students. Employing a process called “teacher inquiry,” network educators will assess their own teaching and then share what they learn with their peers to foster school improvement. Participants also will learn how to organize “professional learning communities” at their schools—small teams of teachers who systematically work together to improve teaching practice and student learning.

The network will have its own Web site for reporting their study outcomes, sharing ideas and experiences with peers, and disseminating the best teaching practices for increasing student learning in the middle grades.

Kathy Shewey will coordinate a kick-off project through her position with the local school district. She and UF advisory team members will work with other middle school teachers to lead a retreat on “Middle Schools Teacher Leadership in Action” during district-wide planning meetings held before each school year.

“The University of Florida pioneered the original middle school movement, and now we’re leading modern reform efforts to enhance effective middle school practices and reintroduce some of these practices into schools where they may have lost momentum over the years,” Dana said. “The Sheweys’ gift will ultimately benefit thousands of middle school teachers and their students.”

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  Larry Lansford, llansford@coe.ufl.edu, 352-392-0726, ext. 266

  Nancy Dana, ndana@coe.ufl.edu, 352-392-0728, ext. 299