I usually leave my office door open. On some days, when all my time is spent writing emails, returning voicemails, and preparing for meetings, an open door offers my only connection to the goings on at FSMN. If you leave your door open, you start to feel the pulse of the building. There are loud times and quiet times, sharp bursts of winter air as students head out to recess, squeaky shoes, loud voices, and all the noises of a busy, happy school.
It was my open door that offered me a short glimpse into an important aspect of life at a K-8 school, maybe one we don’t highlight enough. Specifically, the important time and opportunities we create for younger students and older students to be together.
One afternoon I heard loud whispers as a sixth grade student and two younger buddies, maybe first or second grade, settled on the couch in our front hallway with a book. They cozied up next to each other (really they were as close as you can get without actually sitting on another human) and began to read together. The sixth-grader took great care to make sure each buddy could see the pictures, helped sound out big words, and clearly took his role as an older buddy seriously.
It was certainly a sweet scene (one might even call it cute, if you are into that sort of thing), but it is important to take the time to reflect on and appreciate the value of K-8 education and how a school like ours leverages the advantages and experiences of having kindergarten through eighth grade under one roof.
At Friends School of Minnesota, you see a variety of cross-grade and age activities often. Whether in formal buddy activities like the one I saw, outside during our all-school Wednesday recesses, or in simple, informal ways, like when an 8th grader walks past the K cubbies and greets each student by name.
At first glance it is easy to see the benefits of having 5 through 14-year-olds going to school together. The many possibilities for students to form relationships is clear. Maybe the most obvious benefit is the opportunity our younger students have to learn and play from older students. They have older buddies to look up to. They experience middle school classrooms and teachers years before moving up, which makes those later transitions less intimidating. They also see older kids modeling service and advocacy in activities like Plant Sale, Environmental Action Club, and Crosby Farm Day.
What is sometimes lost in the conversation about K-8 schools are the benefits they offer older, middle-school-aged students. Research shows middle-school-aged students (ages 12-14) who attend K-8 schools outperform their traditional middle school peers. Students who attend K-8 schools tend to score higher in reading, language arts, and mathematics and wind up with better experiences as they enter 9th grade. (American Education Research Journal, Oct. 2016).
Part of this has to do with the timing. Developmentally, it is just not a good idea to add a major, disruptive transition to the life of 11 and 12-year-olds. Changing buildings, increasing class sizes and increased academic load, on top of the trials and tribulations of puberty, is not a recipe for academic success.
In addition, and perhaps more importantly, studies show that K-8 schools provide “more supportive contexts for youth” and “better support student adaptation and development” (Society for Research on Educational Effectiveness, 2014). K-8 schools are better positioned to attend to the overall mental health of young adolescents during this acutely vulnerable and distinctly challenging time of life. At K-8 schools young adolescents experience higher levels of self esteem, they report feeling safer, tend to have a positive (as positive as a sixth-grader can) attitude toward school.
At K-8 schools, middle school students are in the position of being student leaders. They are given the time to grow into greater responsibility, both academically and socially.
At Friends School of Minnesota, we ensure our middle school students are continually, and affirmatively seen as members of a community. Our cross-grade activities and whole school experiences reaffirm over and over again that they are part of something bigger and have important roles to play, even when it seems like life is getting harder and adult support seems less important.