Friday, February 29

Middle School Muddle: Look for adults who 'get' these middle schoolers

The words “middle school’’ strike fear into the heart of otherwise rational parents. It causes some to pack-up and move to the suburbs, afraid that the New York City public school system will fall woefully short of their expectations.

Others may declare, "My child needs private school,’’ with all that implies – smaller classes, more individual attention, a wider range of arts, sports and after school activities, the perception – and in some cases the reality – of a more intensive academic program.

I don't judge or begrudge those choices. It's just that I've come to an entirely different conclusion about what matters most in a middle school, based on a mere year and a half experience as a public middle school parent.

The problem is this: You can’t escape this thing that happens when middle school kids become … middle schoolers, no matter where they end up going or how much it costs.

At some point, your middle schoolers are likely to no longer resemble the compliant, easy-going children you remember. Maybe they have grown five inches in six months. They have a crush for the first time and start acting weird. They have secrets. They rebel. They lie. They become impossible, petulant, annoying, withdrawn and prickly. They act out to impress their friends. They test you, try you and twist you if you let them.

That’s why it’s essential they end up in a building where there is someone they can talk to, someone they trust.

No wonder middle school parents get scared. My only advice to parents looking for middle schools anywhere is to watch how the grown-ups in the building relate to the kids.

During tours, does anyone mention the enormous physical and emotional changes that start taking place during adolescence? If they don’t, you might want to ask.

If you attend an event at the school (highly recommended) watch to see if the kids are interacting with any of the faculty. Or ask kids at a school how they feel about the staff. Is there someone in the building kids talk to: a coach, drama teacher or guidance counselor?

Maybe the principal likes to shoot baskets with the kids or occasionally go out to lunch with them? Does he or she complain about these kids? Does the staff think these half-grown kids are funny? (They are, truly, even though they make you want to cry as often as you want to laugh.)

My son’s middle school, the Clinton School for Artists and Writers, does not have small classes, athletic fields or other amenities typical of private and suburban schools. But everyone from the school aides to the parent coordinator and the principal has a sense of humor and perspective, the ability to roll their eyes at the awkward stages, behavior and sheer height differences that seem to shift daily.

At school events, I’ve noticed swarms of kids hanging around the 7th-grade language arts teacher and the social studies teacher, for example. They look really comfortable, laughing and chatting about everything from music and books to friendship.

These are teachers who give plenty of homework and expect a lot. But they also look like they are really enjoying these kids.

And I am so relieved that someone does.

Read all of Liz Willen's Middle School Muddle

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