The transition to Middle School is a big deal.

Students have to handle an increased work load, the confusion of changing classes, the logistics of managing a locker, and the emotional highs and lows that come with the arrival of teenage hormones. They worry about what will happen if they forget things, whether or not people will like them and how they will fit in.

This brave new world of Middle School can seem at first like a cold and scary place, so at Morgan Park Academy, we work hard to make it feel warm and friendly and less overwhelming.

One of the ways we do that is by taking a slightly different approach with sixth-graders than we do with seventh- and eighth-graders. Here at the start of the school year, that means paying special attention to these youngest members of our Middle School.

Listening Closely

Each day starts with morning advisory, where teachers check in with each student in their advisory group and help remind them about upcoming events. Sixth-grade advisors take their roles very seriously, alerting division leaders about moods and conflicts and finding students the assistance they need.

We make every effort to create advisor-student pairings that most benefit each student, and we are committed to making advisory group meetings a safe space where kids feel comfortable asking questions and expressing themselves.

We are blessed to have a fabulous wellness counselor who is an especially skilled comforter and listener, even as all of us take on a bit more of a comforter/listener role in these first few weeks.

Making Sense of It All

There is a lot for new Middle Schoolers to absorb.

On our opening day, advisors helped students decipher their schedules, and in the days since, I have heard that guidance continue: “Okay, what class is first today? Do you have the books you need?”

Our sixth-grade teachers have patiently helped our brand-newbies with email and myMPA accounts, uniforms and gym clothes, and those ever-vexing combination locks at the gym.

We find lunches, help resolve minor friendship issues, dry tears when books or uniform pieces are forgotten, and assure students that it really will all be OK. We are more forgiving of late arrivals to school or to class, and remind and remind and remind again.

Just this morning, one of our sixth grade teachers brought a student to me to help solve a schedule issue. She explained what was going on, handed the issue off to me, then turned to ask the young lady on her way out, “Do you have anything more I can help you with?”

At least twice per quarter, members of our admin support staff go through mounting piles of Lost and Found items in search of names… then deliver the items to their rightful owners.

Social Time

We have arranged the schedule for sixth-graders to include a mid-morning snack break that gives them time to move around and blow off some steam. At lunch time, they eat with friends they choose to sit with, then head outside to play for recess.

Sixth-graders nearly always want to be outside for recess, and most want to spend that time running around and engaged in genuine play — such as the wildly popular holdover from Lower School, “Battleship.” We are outside whenever the volatile Chicago climate permits, and we encourage inclusive play.

The transition to Middle School can, in fact, be scary. Students have to handle a lot of changes from their previous, more insular school experience. They take on more responsibility, have a more demanding workload, and suddenly have to manage their own time.

At Morgan Park Academy, we are committed to softening the scary parts and letting our students know that the adults are here to help them. By the end of the first semester, they will feel as though they have been here forever, this routine will be second nature, and we will all wonder what we worried about.

Until then — and beyond — all of us are here to help.

By Heather Kurut

Mrs. Kurut is the principal of Lower School and Middle School.