Transitioning to Sparhawk Middle School

Kaitlyn MacDonald, Assistant Headmaster

Transitioning to Sparhawk Middle School

by Kaitlyn MacDonald, Assistant Headmaster

“What if no one likes me?”

 “What if I don’t know where to go?”  

“What if it is too hard?”

We hear questions like these from our fifth graders each year.  We hear them and, according to the National Education Association (NEA),  so do most elementary school teachers and parents. One of the most challenging school transitions is the moment when an elementary school child steps up to become the young adolescent of middle school.  For us, this particular transition is so challenging because they are leaving their beloved lower campus with its traditions and buildings, their teachers and class structures that are known, that are trusted, that are familiar.  The upper campus feels different. Both by virtue of being a newer property for our school, but also by virtue of the fact that these same kids are about to be ready for a shift and a change, for a time when they begin to be agents of their educational experience.  The harder thing to explain to these incredible people, is that they are on the edge of everything changing, not just campuses. How they see the world and themselves; how they interact with parents and peers; how their minds access internal and external stimuli--all of this is about to shift and grow.  To put it simply: it is hard time in a kid’s life. And as a result, it can also be a hard time in a parent’s life, as well.

This is why it is so important for us to help our students feel heard, to see themselves  as “stakeholders” in this transition. NEA created an eight point plan to help ensure successful attrition into middle grades programs.  Below, I will delineate how Sparhawk has responded to these points. As you read, know that we are here for you and your child during this time. It won’t always be easy.  We won’t always agree. But we know that you are committed to your child becoming the best version of themselves that is possible. We are, too.

NEA Recommendation          

Sparhawk Action Plan

Incoming middle school students should be involved in a variety of activities preparing them for middle school. They should have the opportunity to meet middle school students and teachers in their elementary school. They should have the opportunity to visit the middle school in the spring and meet the staff and students, particularly their homeroom teacher and classmates. Educators in both the elementary and the middle school should provide activities for students that lessen their concerns, build their confidence, and reduce their anxiety.

At Sparhawk, we offer two “Step-up Days” for fifth grade students.  These are opportunities for our fifth graders to experience what a Middle School day feels like. Our team of teachers are welcoming and dedicated to developing the skills and talents of their students.  In addition to these visit days, fifth graders have shared Enrichment Time with our Middle School students. This allows our fifth graders weekly interaction with this peer group and the teachers throughout the year.  

Current middle school students also should be prepared for and included in orientation presentations--through a leadership/student government class, a “buddy” system, or other planned ways.

We want our students to feel heard and feel supported.  In the Middle School wing, we have both our Assistant Director, Kate Widener,  and Lead Teacher, Zach Lange, are available to students throughout the day. Kate, Zach, Diane, and Eric, our core Middle School staff, are involved in leading community meetings, issue-specific Justice Circles, and building developmentally appropriate socratic discussions on age-specific topics such as emotional/physical development, social media, study habits, wellness, and other topics as determined by the students and the team.

Elementary teachers, counselors, and other licensed staff members should be aware of the concerns of their students and the anxieties of moving into middle schools. They should be upbeat and reassuring -- and they should not use middle schools as a "threat" or misplaced motivational tool. They should know about the developmental issues, indeed, some of their students in the elementary schools will already be experiencing some of these changes.

We are lucky to meet as a staff for a week in June after students depart and one and half weeks in August prior to student arrival.  During this time, our faculty are able to communicate about each student’s specific strengths, challenges, and goals for the new year.  Given the amount of time our Middle School staff spends with our fifth grade students, they have the advantage of also building a relationship with the students before they are registered in their classes.  

Middle school teachers should be well versed in the developmental issues of their students. They also should be aware that students will experience anxieties associated with the change and they should begin before school starts to work to neutralize these anxieties. Visiting elementary schools in the spring, so the students know the teachers, and addressing any questions or concerns on the first day of the school year are two ways to facilitate this easing into the year.

The teacher that stops learning is the teacher who is no longer capable of teaching.  Our staff attends trainings on campus and off on topics such as childhood development, experiential education, educating the anxious, progressive education, project-based learning, executive functioning supports, and a variety of other issues related to the middle school student experience.  Periodically, we will share with you our resources. Know that we appreciate greatly when parents share the resources that they find!

Parents should attend the spring incoming parent night to meet homeroom teachers and begin to establish a relationship with the teachers.

Each Spring we offer a Parent Orientation evening.  We look forward to meeting our fifth grade parents and answering all your questions.  Typically, this is held immediately before the Spring Step-Up Day.  

Parents should attend school meetings to learn about the concerns and questions their children have and will have. They should talk with their children about the upcoming school year and emphasize the positive aspects of attending middle school. Parents should watch for signs of depression and be ready to address them.

Please know that we want to hear from you.  No problem is too small--we are part of your village and educating your children is a an honor for us all.  If your child has concerns about the next step, let’s talk about it. Together we can come up with a plan to make your child feel not only comfortable about the shift, but feel confident about Sparhawk being the right step in your child’s educational journey.  

Parents need to learn about young adolescents and their developmental issues and stages so that they will understand better this new and wonderful person with whom they live, and be able to interact with them in positive ways that build relationships.

We are happy to share with you the research that inspires our pedagogy.  It is so important for us to share with each other the unique challenges and concerns that you have for your own child.  Middle School students experience many of the same things that we did when we were that age, but they also are experiencing unique challenges that most of us did not.  Social media and the expanse of technology have provided so many positive elements to our lives and yet, also an equal amount of challenges, particularly during this time of adolescence when identity challenges and social/emotional wellness can be so preoccupying, often debilitating, and overall, a minefield of ups and downs.

In the end, after working with hundreds of children, we can tell you that it is going to be okay.  Together, we can help your child grow up into the person they are destined to be. We need to work together.  We need to help your child see their authentic selves. We need to help them laugh and give them space to cry;  support them when they need silence, but be sure to give them space to speak when they need to share.