For JoAnna Fernandez, middle school was a total shock to the system. She'd been a smart, sunny kid -- until she started sixth grade in Stafford, Virginia, in 2004. "Going from one class to eight, I was always rushed and anxious I'd be late," she says. "I was only 11, and the eighth-graders seemed so old. I felt intimidated." The next year, when JoAnna; her mom, Kimberley, 47, an administrative assistant; and dad, Carlos, 52, a contracting company vice president, moved to Madison, Alabama, things got worse. Enrolling at Liberty Middle School, JoAnna went into panic mode. A solid B student and math whiz, JoAnna began struggling academically, even in pre-algebra. "My teacher explained things really fast, and I couldn't keep up," she recalls. "Half of what he said went over my head, but I didn't want to ask for help because I thought I'd look like a nerd or a suck-up." Though she managed to ace her exam study guides, when it came to the real thing, "I'd look at the test and my mind would go blank," she says. By the beginning of eighth grade JoAnna was getting D's and failing math. The school notified her parents that unless her performance improved, she was in danger of being held back.
JoAnna had a serious case of what experts call the middle-school slump. The malaise typically strikes sixth-graders and is marked by a dramatic drop in achievement. Self-esteem takes a beating, kids lose focus, and they disengage from learning. The result, according to a study published by the Rand Corporation, is that by the time they graduate, only one-third of eighth-grade students have attained age-appropriate proficiency in arithmetic, science, or reading.