Middle School and the Importance of the Pre-K—Grade 8 Model, Part 2

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.

What is different in a Pre-K–Grade 8 school structure that makes the experience distinct and better for a middle school child? This is expressing the obvious, but the first difference is they are no longer in the middle; they are at the top. They are viewed differently by younger children and do not have older students looming over them. Simply by virtue of being in the top position, they feel better about themselves and behave better. As a result, their demeanor (not for all individually, but for the group) is more mature and responsible more consistently than in other school configurations. Being out of the middle makes a difference.

I have been told and have considered comments suggesting that this top-dog role softens them, keeps them in a protective bubble that students in schools with secondary schools learn to manage without. There may be some truth to that, but at its base, our grade structure is a developmental advantage. Our students may display a greater innocence, but that is a good thing. Being able to maintain an appropriate level of innocence, avoiding “growing up” too fast, serves all children well. Middle school groups from Pre-K–Grade 12 or Grade 6–12 schools may seem more sophisticated, but it is only a veneer of sophistication fueled by being around 9th and 10th graders and seeking to impress them. That is something to avoid. 

A key advantage of Derby Academy is that we ask more of our Grade 8 students. We expect them to be mature and responsible. We expect them to help set the tone for younger students. We expect—in fact, we need them to be leaders and role models. And, as is the case with so much of child development, if you set high expectations and provide support, students will rise to them. They might be awkward in their attempts; they might stumble under the weight of responsibility; but, they benefit greatly from being given opportunities and second chances in an environment meant for them. That is something to seek and treasure; that is what Derby offers. 

Another significant advantage of our configuration is that as their final year approaches, every student must prepare for the admissions process to secondary school. Being aware of that fact adds a seriousness of purpose to classes and grades that is not experienced in a Pre-K–Grade 12 or Grade 6–12 school. Our students know their performance matters. Their transcript means something; it is going to be reviewed and evaluated soon—with real consequences. That is not true for students in other schools. Their middle school years carry far less significance. The strength of one’s transcript crosses the minds of very few middle school students in other settings. At a time when many students struggle to find academic motivation and purpose, the experience of Derby’s Upper School years is truly meaningful.

Then there is the process itself: considering what you want from the next phase of your education, formulating an essay to present yourself, articulating who you are and what you value, all require serious self-reflection. All aspects of the secondary school application process are such valuable experiences. They provide a capstone experience Pre-K–Grade 12 or Grade 6–12 schools cannot offer. For an eighth grade student, the school search process is one of several academic and social tangibles and intangibles the Derby setting provides that schools of other grade configurations cannot match. 

Lest this seems like the benefit of Derby is reserved for Grade 8 and those in the lower grades are just biding their time, consider the trickle-down effect of our structure and expectations. Seventh graders sense the difference as well. They are very aware of all that awaits them. Eager to assume the leadership role, they are more motivated. Sixth graders have a target in sight—two years and they will be on top. And, even third and fourth graders can envision being an eighth grader—they know them and look up to them. That benefits both the eighth grader and the younger students. Most importantly, for those in the lower grades of Derby, their turn to be the eighth grader and school leader will come soon, and they too will benefit from being on top in the middle school years rather than stuck in the middle.

By selecting a Pre-K–Grade 8 school, you have made a good pedagogical choice. By selecting Derby, you have made the best school choice for these years. Those decisions also will make the next choice—secondary school—easier and more rewarding. 

As Thanksgiving approaches, I want to thank you for your support in making the fall term a success. We all have much to be thankful for and certainly, our health and ability to be on campus are at the top of the list. Let’s keep it going.

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.