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Parent Perspectives with Amy Neiman

Christina Coffman
Something magical happens between 5th and 6th grade here at Highlands. Now if I was talking about having all the answers to all things parenting and how everything just clicks into place, well, we would be selling that secret for sure. No, it is something that parents can’t always see, but it is a feeling that the kids have when they leave the elementary school vibe behind and enter Middle School. 
 
When my first child started 6th grade, I saw it happen, and I didn’t get it. How could there be such a difference in Middle school? I mean it is just a different building. They are at the same school so….? But my guess is if you ask any of the middle schoolers today, they will tell you - it IS different.
 
I have 4 children and each of them is very, very different. They are individuals that just happen to live under the same roof. My older two, a freshman in college and junior in high school, went all the way through the Highlands Middle School program. My remaining two are here in 8th and 6th grade. There are plenty of research articles out there that hail the benefits of a K-8 program. As a past educator myself, I’m a believer but that is not what is in this blog. Below, I’m going to tell you a bit about the unique aspects of Middle School. These are the pieces that I think make 6th-8th grade feel truly different and yet still contain the high quality, high expectations, and high love for kids that Highlands offers to all. 
 
 
Middle School Days - Like the 4th/5th grade, Middle schoolers switch classes and have multiple teachers. But there are some significant differences:
  • The kids get to travel between classes WITHOUT teachers leading them.
  • They have electives. As 6th graders, students are required to take Study Skills and Digital Life the first semester. This leaves room for 1 choice elective. The electives are classes such as Chess, Math in Game Shows, or Serve to Learn and more. 7th and 8th graders and 2nd semester 6th graders take 3 choice electives per semester.
  • During the year, 6th grade students have a unique learning opportunity through Writing Lab with Mrs. Darden. This is a specialized time when kids go deep with their writing skills. 
  • The Middle School schedule is on a rotating 7 day schedule - A-G days. It is wild to me how quickly most of the kids understand and remember their schedules, but if you forget, there is always someone to help remind you what “letter” it is.
  • Middle Schoolers have foreign language classes 5 out of the 7 days in the rotation. 
  • They have Project Study time each day. This is a time during the day to do homework, visit with teachers to get extra help or clarify a concept or do project work- which does continue in Middle School.
  • Middle Schoolers also have an Advisor and have Advisory 3 times during the 7-day schedule.
 
Advisory vs. Homeroom - Just like in elementary school, your Middle School student has a homeroom teacher. This homeroom is where they begin and usually end the day. It is a quick check-in to take attendance and to gather materials. Just like in elementary school, your homeroom teacher will change each year. 
 
Your student’s advisor could be the same teacher as their homeroom teacher or could be different. The advisor is a Middle School teacher who watches your student from 6th-8th grade. Advisories are made up of 6th, 7th, and 8th grade students. Throughout the year there are fun challenges that give advisories points. (If you are a Harry Potter fan, think “house cup.”). This fall, the advisories have created mascots, pillows, and had a pretty intense corn hole competition. It has been a fantastic way for my kids to be a part of the Middle School Community and enjoy the span of grades 6th-8th. 
 
 
Student Council - 8th graders lead this group which will plan social activities for the Middle School throughout the year. The 8th graders are elected by their peers to the offices of President, Vice President, Treasurer, and Secretary. Then each homeroom elects a representative. This group of 10 kids is led this year by JB Copeland, Middle School Math Teacher. During the first week or two of the fall, STUCO (as the kids call it) makes a plan for the year and all Middle School students are invited to attend. The calendar differs each year. 
  • Fizzy Fridays - This is an event that happens once a month and on special occasions. STUCO sells candy and drinks for $1 per item with a limit of $5.
  • Dances - STUCO also plans 2-3 dances per year that take place in the Spencer Center. With a DJ to spin the music and decorations based on a theme, the Middle Schoolers dance the night away or at least until the 9 pm pick up.
  • Gym Nights - These events are times when kids get together to play games in the gym and on the soccer field. 
  • Movie Nights- There have been movie nights in the past which are thrown up on a big screen and enjoyed by all Middle Schoolers who attend. 
 
Middle School Trips - Each spring the entire Middle School (in non-Covid years) takes a 4 day trip. The destinations in the past have been Boston, Washington DC, and Philadelphia. By the end of Middle School, the students will have been to all 3 cities. These trips are taken with the Middle School teachers and are truly special. Not only are they packed with fantastic sights full of historical meaning, but the time spent together as a group bonding and getting to know each other outside of school helps to solidify the bond between kids and teachers.
 
 
8th Grade Traditions- When you make it to the top, there are perks. 
  • Totes - In the first week or two of school, 8th graders are presented with a Highlands Tote bag (a really nice one) which signifies the beginning of their last year at Highlands. 
  • Leadership Retreat - This is a two day event spent together at school. This year the 8th graders spent a Thursday on campus getting to know each other better and playing games about teamwork. Dinner and a movie on campus is followed the next day by a day of service. This year the 8th grade helped clean up a section of Shades Creek. 
  • Dauphin Island- Mr. K, the science teacher, takes the 8th graders down to Dauphin Island for a 2 night/2 ½ day trip to see the biodiversity of the Alabama delta. The kids stay in dorm-style rooms at the lab, go out on a boat, beach hikes, and so much more. They come home totally exhausted and very dirty but having had a hands-on learning experience like no other. 
  • Teddy Bear Day- You thought Teddy Bear Day was just for 4K? Nope. This bookend tradition allows the 8th graders to bring back their teddy bears and spend time with the students who are just beginning their Highlands careers. 
  • Outplacement Services- Mr. Bardo leads intensive outplacement services during the 8th grade year. Ms. Kernan holds review sessions for the SSAT and ISEE which are the two high school placement exams that many students will have to take. Mr. Bardo sets up high school nights where area high schools come to discuss their campuses. There is also a boarding school evening for families as well. 
  • Capstone Projects- The ultimate project-based learning experience at Highlands. 8th grade students get to do a deep dive into a subject that they are interested in learning more about and create a project. Then they present their process and work in a 3-5 minute speech the last week of school. The cool thing about Capstones is they can really be anything. Here are some topics that I recall from years past - composing a school song, forging a sword, creating a board game, writing a book! You can really see the kids’ personalities shine through when they speak on their projects. 
  • Quad Privileges- All Highlands students are instructed to use the sidewalks around the Quad. That is a must until the 8th grade. One of the major perks to being in 8th grade at Highlands is the privilege to walk across the grass on the Quad during school. And yes, it is truly exciting. And yes, if an 8th grader sees a non-8th grader walking across the grass during school, you can bet that a gentle reminder will be given to get to the sidewalk. 
  • Graduation- There is a lovely graduation ceremony at the end of the year. Families come; videos are played to show how much the kids have grown; dinner is eaten. Through the tears and laughter and huge smiles, the 8th graders graduate. They have completed their journey.
 
I know I have missed much, but hopefully, you have gotten a glimpse of some of the ways that Highlands Middle School is one of a kind. I can’t wait to see what your child does for their CapStone. 
 
Amy Neiman, mother to Highlands’ graduates Amelia (18), Michael (16) and current Highlands’ Middle Schoolers Parker (13) and Ruby (11).
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