Middle School and the Importance of the Pre-K—Grade 8 Model, Part 1

With decades of leadership experience within the independent school environment, Interim Head of School Tom Reid offers insight into the critical years of middle school and the importance of the Pre-K—Grade 8 school model.

Recently, I started having lunch meetings with each of the eighth graders. Though the very thought of having a one-on-one lunch with my grade school principal would have made me quake, Derby eighth graders have seemed quite at ease coming into my office. Conversation has flowed comfortably. I, at least, have fully enjoyed the occasions. I also know they will be invaluable to me as I support their secondary school application process, a signature strength of the Derby experience.

In my conversations with members of the Class of 2021, we talk of the Derby difference, what they have gained from Derby they might not have received elsewhere, what they value most. The conversations have led me to think about my views on school structures. During my career, I have taught in a variety of school configurations, Pre-K-8, Pre-K-12, 6-12, 9-12. Overall, I have spent the majority of my time in Pre-K-8 and Pre-K-12 schools. I know them best and appreciate the differences and benefits of each. I would like to share some thoughts on why I favor the PK-8 model and then expand on ideas as they relate to younger students at Derby and their counterparts in other schools and school formats.

I enjoyed teaching at all levels. As a head of school, when away from an upper school, I do miss the level of discourse in class and the banter in the halls with older students. Yet, I also love the middle school environment, watching the incredible diversity and rapidity of social, emotional, and physical change. And, if away from a lower school, I miss the openness, curiosity, and joy of lower school students. I simply could not select one level as my favorite. Furthermore, the tone, culture, and experience of each level is impacted by what other levels are part of the school. A grade 9-12 school is very different from a grade 6-12 or PK-12. For that reason, thinking solely of the total educational experience for a student and benefits derived from the school structure, the Pre-K-8 model is my preference. I also believe it is the best model for students during the middle school years.

On the surface, the distinction I make may seem like one of importance only to a professional educator, considering education esoterica, not practical matters. In Pre-K-12 schools there are certainly teachers who know, understand, and work well with middle school students. In either, the curricula and programs would be similar. Certainly the children are the same, going through the same changes, with the same ups and downs, the same trying out of roles and styles. So, what is special about the Pre-K-8 setting and why does it matter?

Setting is crucial. In a Pre-K-12 school, the middle school student is stuck in the middle—literally and figuratively—no one outside the middle school appreciates them. The lower school teachers wonder whatever happened to the lovely children they once taught; now they are big and loud, awkward and goofy, and oblivious to those around them. A pack of middle school students could drive you off a sidewalk (totally innocent of any ill intent) and never take note of your shocked and bewildered face.  Lower school teachers are apt to say,“That is not who they were when they were with us; I wish those children would have stayed as they were; why did they have to grow up to be middle schoolers?” And, at the other end of the spectrum, the upper school teachers see the same inappropriate (but normal) middle school behavior—loud, awkward, goofy, oblivious children and think, “They are so immature; they are not going to be ready for the upper school. They really need to grow up.”

And what do students of the lower school and upper school “hear” about middle school? The lower school teachers tell their students not to behave like middle school students. The upper school students mock middle schoolers, avoid them, or use them as figurative, if not literal, punching bags. While not quite outcasts, in a Pre-K-12 school, the middle school student is the least favored member of the family. They are truly stuck in the middle, and the only way out is through the awkwardness of those years in a setting that is not designed to fully support their developmental needs.

Thus the need for and importance of a Pre-K-8 setting where all that is wonderful and possible for the middle school child is appreciated and available. 

To close, let me add, if I in any way have presented middle school students in an unfair light, please know that I look upon them as they are captured in a book on early adolescence, Learning How to Kiss a Frog. Figuratively, I feel fortunate to have kissed many a middle school frog, knowing the wonderful high school students and adults they became. I am certain our faculty feels the same.

Tom Reid
Interim Head of School
Derby Academy

Tom Reid, Derby Academy, Interim Head

As Derby Academy's Interim Head of School, Tom Reid brings an exceptionally strong and successful career as a leader and teacher. He recently served as the Interim Head of School at The Benjamin School in North Palm Beach, FL. He has served as interim head of four other independent schools–Palmer Trinity School (FL), Upland Country Day School (PA), Charleston Day School (SC), and White Mountain School (NH). Prior to his interim work, Tom served as Headmaster of St. Paul’s School in Lutherville, Maryland for eleven years, and Headmaster of Buckley Country Day School in Roslyn, New York for fourteen years. 

Tom began his career as a classroom teacher at Chestnut Hill Academy in Philadelphia after which he served as a teacher and administrator for nine years at Pomfret School in Connecticut. He holds a B.A. in History from the University of Pennsylvania, and an M.A. in Educational Administration from the University of Connecticut. In addition, Tom has served on the Board of Directors of the New York State Association of Independent Schools, the Association of Maryland Independent Schools, and the Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association. He is also a founding director of Ice Hockey in Harlem, an after-school program that has served young people in Harlem for the past 28 years.