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We understand the challenges of raising and educating kids in the 21st century. Here are some insights we have picked up along the way. 

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How Fostering a Strong Middle School Community Develops Responsible and Responsive Students

By Dr. Brendan Byrne, Head of Middle School

We read so much today about the importance of community (and community-mindedness) in our country. My day-to-day experience as a middle school teacher and head suggests that no where is that more important than during the middle school years. At The Harvey School, forming a community in which its members -- our students -- learn that they have responsibilities is core to our mission.

At their best and most high-performing, middle schools should offer an environment where kids feel safe and their voices are heard -- both by their teachers and their peers. We have found that a key part of this can come from a good advisory system -- one that allows them to connect in a meaningful fashion with adults. It’s so important for them to have an adult to turn to when issues arise, or to share news when good things happen. It gives them the understanding that what they are doing is meaningful and provides a place to safely share ideas and thoughts. This type of responsible mentorship allows them to have a voice at this stage in their life and feel that their voice is heard. 

For those in the 11-14 year range, it’s critical that they have the opportunity to talk about things like community and belonging. Typically kids don’t get to experience that until later in life -- once they’re in college or in the workplace -- so to give them this opportunity in middle school gives them a great foundation from which to build as they get older and community becomes both more important and at times presents challenges. 

So what does it mean to be a citizen in this community? One aspect is that you are part of a class of 10 or 11 students who look after one another. You are part of a class where the teacher expects you to contribute every day so there’s a pressing incentive to be prepared for class, to do your homework, and to prepare for assessments. Your classmates and your teachers --  your community -- are counting on you. 

To remain a community member in good standing, in both the middle school and in the individual classroom, you have responsibilities to your teachers and classmates. I know students respond to that. It’s not just an individual experience where “I’m just here to get grades for me and for my report card.” It’s “I’m a contributing member of my classroom community and the school as a whole.” This mindset and daily reality motivates students. 

I believe that the role of a great middle school is to help students prepare for the next stage of their education by recognizing who they are as students and as young adults and see themselves as a member of a community in good standing. 

Middle schoolers as a group are at that stage in life where they are experiencing so much emotionally, physically, cognitively; there is a lot of change going on. I recognize that it’s a special point in a young person's life, where you realize as an adult and as an educator, that you can still have an impact on them. They are still receptive to what you tell them and how you guide them.

The innocence that comes with a sixth-grader matures as he or she becomes an eighth-grader, ready to become a more independent person. I love to see that progression, and it’s heartening to know we can have an impact on them before they are ready to jump into high school, a new community whose success is dependent on the skills and knowledge they’ve gained here as part of the middle school community.

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