Efforts to improve the city’s middle schools have come a long way since they were announced six months ago, Chancellor Dennis Walcott said today in a policy speech delivered days before his one-year anniversary of his sudden appointment.

Walcott returned to the same venue where he first announced the middle school reforms — New York University’s Kimmel Center – to deliver the keynote speech at a middle school colloquium hosted by NYU Steinhardt’s Research Alliance for New York City Schools. In his speech, Walcott said the city was in the process of rolling out a host of initiatives that the the Department of Education had either created or expanded since September, all in the interest of improving middle schools, which he said had become his main priority during his tenure.

“If we truly care about preparing our students for success in college and careers, middle school needs to be a central focus of our policies,” Walcott said.

Walcott announced that the DOE had allocated about $500,000 to develop new training programs for 150 teachers and 10 principals who he hoped would work specifically in middle schools. And he said the city would exceed his goal of creating 50 new middle schools in the next two years. Twenty-six new middle schools, including 14 charter schools, will open next fall and 28 more schools — including another 14 charters — are set to open in 2013.

Walcott also revealed more details about the city’s rebranded version of the City Council’s Campaign for Middle School Success. The new phase, called the Middle School Quality Initiative, has brought together 18 struggling middle schools to provide teachers and principals at the schools with professional development based on best practices used in higher-performing schools. So far one school — M.S. 244 in the Bronx — has been selected as a model school, but officials said they hoped to bring on two more “anchor” schools.

Back in September, skeptics observed that Walcott’s policy promises did not depart from the Bloomberg administration’s education agenda. Today, too, critics were quick to point out that little fundamental change going into his reform plans.

“There is not one thing that they’re doing here in schools that’s new,” said Richard Farkas, a middle school vice president for the United Federation of Teachers. Farkas said middle schools would be improved by smaller classes but when he posed that idea to Walcott, the chancellor disagreed, saying it wasn’t the most pressing need.

Walcott did announce updates to some new initiatives. The DOE will fund a $15 million, two-year program to provide non-fiction textbooks that will be available starting April 16 to help schools adopt to new Common Core literacy standards. Walcott also announced the creation of a new, privately-funded pilot summer school program called NYC Summer Quest. The program would be for students who struggled on their state tests, but not enough that they qualified for free summer school. The pilot is launching in the South Bronx, but “if the program is successful, we will expand it to other boroughs and neighborhoods,” Walcott said.

At one point, Walcott split from his prepared remarks and shared a story about a recent encounter he had with a middle school student who was bagging Walcott’s groceries. Walcott said the student told him that “he felt that he had a focus” at school,which Walcott said he later corroborated with the student’s principal, who added that the student used to struggle. Walcott said that it was this kind of character development — toward “resilience” — that was as necessary as “what goes on in the classroom.”

Walcott’s appearance was followed up immediately with a panel of dissent. NYU professor Pedro Noguera and City Council Speaker Christine Quinn’s senior education policy analyst, Mathu Subramanian, both said they were concerned about the city’s ability to implement many of the promised changes.

The city’s original rollout of the council’s Campaign for Middle School Success in 2008 was too focused on directing money to individual schools, Subramanian said. Each of the 51 schools in that initiative received $100,000 to use freely, terms that Subramanian said became problematic during consecutive years of budget cuts that left many holes to fill for principals.

Subramanian called the 2012 iteration a “successful collaboration” that seemed to be aimed more toward systemic change this time. “They really are looking at changes that can be scaled systemwide,” she said.

Noguera, who declined an invitation to participate on the Middle School Quality Initiative’s steering committee after sitting on the council’s version in 2008, was less optimistic.

“This is not a system that is designed to learn even from its successes,” he said.