Spoiler alert: parenting adolescents isn’t any easier than walking the floor at midnight with a newborn. The belief that parents can worry less as their children age washes away as parents witness their child go through adolescence—a period of change rivaling that of birth to age three. Adolescence can provide a wild ride at home, and parents depend on a school setting that provides a stabilizing, nurturing, and inspiring platform for growth—a safe place to take risks, make mistakes, and to learn from those mistakes. Being armed with the knowledge about which middle school setting can best provide that experience can go a long way to reduce stress and anxiety for all involved.
One of the most critical misconceptions of middle school is that its primary purpose is to prepare teenagers for high school. That belief fails to consider that middle school should be wholly focused on what middle school students need most at that crucial stage of development. The developmental milestones of emerging adolescents are specific, numerous, and important. People rarely say “First grade’s primary focus is to prepare children for second grade,” yet parents of early adolescents see the specter of high school bearing down and can lose focus of the needs of adolescents. A K-8 school environment can provide that important focus on the needs of middle-schoolers.
According to a recent article from NPR, “A large body of research suggests that students who go to middle school or junior high do worse academically, socially and emotionally, compared to the young teenagers who get to be the oldest students at schools with grades K-8.” Mackintosh Academy strives to maximize the elements we believe make the K-8 model the ideal model for middle school students.
The first element is continuing to develop and nurture strong relationships amongst peers and teachers—to provide the circumstances under which students can feel seen and known. At Mackintosh Academy, teachers and students in all grades interact and get to know one another on the playground, at whole school gatherings and morning meetings, or in cross-grade “buddy” programs. Adolescent children can exhibit negativity, can struggle with judgment in respect to the risks and consequences of their actions, and can develop low self-esteem—these traits can present challenges when large groups of 6th-8th graders are educated in isolation, such as in a traditional, stand-alone middle school. When you see 8th graders at Mackintosh Academy leading community games for all ages at recess, and witness older students sitting with their younger buddies during all-school assemblies, you begin to understand the incredible benefits of keeping middle-schoolers in a K-8 setting.
At the same time, adolescents need dedicated spaces, where they can be immersed in their unique middle school culture. Mack-Boulder’s middle school continues grade-level homerooms (which oftentimes cease after 5th grade in the traditional stand-alone middle school), and has developed 6th-8th connections via the “House System” advisory groups. A middle school “lounge” provides a place for safe, informal interactions. Mack-Littleton’s middle school features a balance of grade-level instruction with a combined 7-8 homeroom. Littleton middle schoolers also have primary responsibility for the greenhouse, giving them another healthy and vibrant space they can call their own.
At Mackintosh, students have the same teachers for PE, Visual Arts, Performing Arts, Design, Library (in Boulder), and Spanish from kindergarten on up. This continuity ensures that students have several teachers each year who already know them well. Smaller class sizes also ensure that all their teachers have a deep sense of their strengths and needs. When middle school students start to experience the “sturm and drang” of adolescence, having the support of teachers who have known them throughout their childhood is invaluable—teachers who have witnessed their growth, their challenges, and know how to leverage their strengths to help the students reach their full potential.
The second element of the Mackintosh Academy K-8 model is the strength of the International Baccalaureate Middle Years Programme (IB MYP), taught by passionate, skilled, and interested teachers. The MYP program provides our teachers a strong academic framework upon which to design creative and experiential units of study. Mackintosh middle-schoolers learn to go deep and connect concepts in all areas of study, including our rich “specials” program. Teachers who lead our middle school are carefully chosen for their love and dedication to this developmental age group, and for their skills and interest in teaching a wide breadth of interconnected subject areas. We pride ourselves on our team that cares about adolescents and is dedicated to developing learners both academically and socially. Additionally, despite not making “high school prep” the entire focus of our middle school, the strong academic foundation of Mackintosh Academy has led many of our graduates to excel in high school—in honors and AP courses, as well as rigorous IB programs.
The third important element of our model is encouraging and providing mentoring and leadership opportunities. Middle-schoolers are uniquely situated in our K-8 model to see themselves and be seen as leaders. Like most sought-after qualities in learners, leadership is usually not innate—it takes modeling, practice, and direct coaching. As students navigate through middle school, they are given opportunities ranging from low-stress options such as serving as a buddy to a K-5th student, to opportunities that take additional courage and mentoring such as completing our 8th grade Community Projects.
At Mack-Boulder, the culmination of leadership and mentoring support unfolds in 8th grade in the new Leadership class. In these weekly classes, the students are given freedom to design ways to make the school and community a better place. For example, 8th graders have been designing and leading weekly recess games for the lower grades, as mentioned above. They’ve also taken over the Pizza Friday sale as a fundraiser for their spring trip to Washington, D.C., and initiated a “sock sale” to earn money for the trip as well as donations of socks to homeless shelters. As the year progresses, middle-schoolers will have more leadership opportunities unique to a K-8 environment, such as running all-school meetings.
Mack-Litteton’s 7th and 8th graders have an opportunity to provide schoolwide leadership via the Leadership Council, which plans and carries out activities and service projects for the whole school. Recently, they led the school’s efforts to honor veterans on Veterans’ Day, including a letter-writing campaign and collecting treats to send to vets. Every other year, Littleton middle schoolers spearhead a fundraising program to support a service trip the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, where they participate in direct service with the local community. Through these opportunities, students position themselves to be comfortable as leaders as they move into high school.
The students are more likely to take these risks as leaders because “in the K-8 schools, those tweens and young teens (are) the “top dogs” — the oldest, the most comfortable and familiar with the school,” as opposed to starting over in sixth grade at a traditional middle school as the “bottom dogs.”
The fourth element of our model is the intentional focus on the development of social-emotional learning (SEL). Since Mackintosh Academy’s founding 40 years ago, SEL has never been a “fad” or “add on”—rather, it is at the core of everything we do. Mack-Boulder’s school psychologist teaches SEL classes to every grade level every week, including 6-8th grades. At Mack-Littleton, classroom teachers integrate SEL into their daily instruction with a focus on the unique needs of gifted learners.
Sustaining focus on SEL throughout our K-8 model is critically important, especially in light of the boundless changes adolescents experience. As peer relationships become more important in adolescence, having this targeted support for students as they figure out who they want to be and how they fit in with others is essential.
One former Mackintosh Academy parent whose child is now in high school said, “In one sense, you worry about the “greenhouse flower” effect. Your child has grown and thrived in this special environment, but once out in the “real world,” you worry they might wilt and won’t be able to withstand pressure. What we found, however, is that being at Mack, in this supportive, nurturing environment for as long as he could, where he was known and understood, where he could experiment and take risks in a low-stakes situation, he grew very sturdy, secure roots. Now out in the harsher climate of high school, he is staying true to himself and his values. He’s secure and knows how to advocate for himself because he was able to learn those skills and use them effectively in the “safe” environment of the K-8 experience. He was able to gain confidence at a time when most middle school kids are having their confidence crushed.”
If you gather a group of parents together and ask them to reflect on their middle school experiences, the vast majority of them speak negatively of their experience. Middle school is typically not revered as a time of “self-worth” and “happiness” and “success.” At Mackintosh Academy, we seek to break that trend by carefully balancing the developmental needs of our students. From a biological and neurodevelopmental standpoint, middle-schoolers are designed to push back on boundaries and limits. They are testing the ones who love them to see how far and deep the love will go. With Mackintosh Academy’s K-8 environment, we are positioned to teach “both the child who is leaving childhood behind, as well as the young adult who is looking forward to the challenges of independence.”