Mead’s PreK-8 structure is in an excellent position to strengthen students in ways that have always been central to our mission, and it may be that the pandemic has reinforced the value of our model even more. [...] In a ragged time, these young learners deserve the attention specific to children who still need to live out their childhood in a space reserved just for them.
In the early 1990s, a move to elevate the value of a discrete Middle School experience, separate from a 7-12 or K-12 structure, began to gain momentum. The complementary question was whether it was better to integrate Middle School into a K-8 model, or a preschool-8 model, or separate Middle School altogether. As a new English Department Head in a larger K-12 school, I was sent to a National Middle School Association conference in Long Beach, California, to learn about this Middle School movement. Once upon a time, Middle School was called “Junior High School,” which reinforced its position as the neglected middle child of the continuum. I always disliked that name; it sounded like “high school lite.”
It is less common to find a stand-alone Middle School in the independent school world (There are, of course, discrete Elementary schools). The more common model is the PreK-8 school—Mead’s model. Yet the current ecosystem is challenging. 54% of National Association of Independent PreK-8 schools say they are under-enrolled. One has to ask why this is. Is it because enrolling a child in a K-12 has its practical implications in time and effort, consolidation, and access to greater activity in the case of larger schools? Then there is anxiety about financing, the complexity of admissions, and a child’s adaptation to a new environment in the transfer to a new school for 9-12.
But as I learned in that conference, and have seen since, a PreK-8 school with its oldest students “in the middle” can serve to strengthen young peoples’ identity at what we know is a very delicate time of development. This structure can give a unique attention to psychosocial identity. Staff expertise at this level of development, and a strong continuity of skills as students move from Pre-Kinders through to 8th grade as their culminating year, is one benefit. The mentorship opportunities that are available in a small model of this kind helps to nurture confidence and responsibility. The benefits are great enough to warrant a much more robust defense of the discrete PreK-8 school model.
Our alumni consistently speak of how secure they felt within themselves when they moved on from Mead - more secure in fact than many of their entering high school peers. It is hard to say how much of this value is Mead’s philosophy, and how much is the value of a K-8 model. But the two are linked. Our PreK-8 setting provides the ideal environment to begin fostering leadership in young adolescents. Our eighth graders are our seniors, serving in apprentice and mentor capacities, while younger students have someone to look up to and experiences to which to aspire. I am the product of a K-8 school in New York that attended to a model of nurture that really valued this transition. We were not lost in the middle but possessed our own distinct selves. The transition to a different school, not just a different campus, felt like a genuine rite of passage.
Research on which model has more efficacy in terms of academic skills is mixed, but some research shows that students in PreK-8 models may have more confidence in themselves as readers and writers in particular. So it is in the Social-Emotional realm where we really see the assets. For older kids, the pressure to leave childhood behind and grow up too fast is reduced in the absence of a contiguous High School.
Mead’s PreK-8 structure is in an excellent position to strengthen students in ways that have always been central to our mission, and it may be that the pandemic has reinforced the value of our model even more. We attract teachers who want to teach this age, who are both specialists and generalists in the best sense. Students are able to experience the comfort and stability of the staff for consecutive years, forming strong bonds with faculty. This all builds closeness with caring adults. We can send our students to high school having nurtured them as independent thinkers and learners because we do not think of them as “transitional.”
“I wish Mead would add a High School,” some parents have lamented. I answer by saying that we would rather enlarge and diversify intentionally our current PreK-8 model, capitalizing on current successes in a school where we already serve a wide array of curious, engaged learners. In a ragged time, these young learners deserve the attention specific to children who still need to live out their childhood in a space reserved just for them.
Peter Herzberg, Interim Head of School