Middle School: often synonymous with growing pains, mood swings, and awkwardness (remember when you were a Middle Schooler?). Essentially, this time in a student’s life is sometimes portrayed as negative. At St. Andrew’s Episcopal School, however, faculty and administrators flip this perspective, seeing Middle School as time to grow, to flourish, and to remember fondly.
“We think Middle School is important and should be a positive time in kids’ lives,” said Clay Elliott, St. Andrew’s Head of Middle School. “I think too many people dismiss it, saying ‘Oh, that’s just a hard time’ or ‘Ugh, I just got through the Middle School years.’”
Elliott joined St. Andrew’s leadership in 2019, continuing a career of more than two decades in Middle School education. A native of Houston, Elliott graduated from Williams College before earning a Master of Arts in Private School Leadership from the Klingenstein Center at Columbia University’s Teachers College. Most recently, he served as Head of Middle School at Randolph School in Huntsville. Despite working in schools across the country, Elliott views St. Andrew’s as a unique educational institution.
As both the top school in Mississippi and a leading independent school in the country, St. Andrew’s is known for its academic excellence. Through a challenging, integrated curriculum that meets the social-emotional, physical, and intellectual needs and interests of adolescents, the Middle School years are no exception. As critical thinkers, students are called upon to question rather than be satisfied with the simple acceptance of new ideas.
“In this region, our diversity and inclusion make us unique,” he said. “Our commitment to rigorous academics is unique, as is our commitment to creating students who will be part of a global world and a global marketplace. We expose them to these larger concepts and give them the tools they need to operate in the world, both in Mississippi and beyond. We encourage them to think about how to be part of an ever-changing and diverse world.”
Students’ development, however, is not limited to campus. Twice a year, the entire Middle School student body and faculty leave their classrooms behind to embark on a full day of service throughout the Jackson metro area. Additionally, Middle School students participate in Free Choice Fridays, in which they choose from a variety of creative and enjoyable electives, held on Friday afternoons throughout the school year. Some of these electives are service-related, and often students form community service clubs with their peers.
“I think that’s one of the big secrets of success in instilling a service mindset in kids,” Elliott said. “Giving them ownership of service projects, not forcing them to do something, but really encouraging them to choose and own it.” Recently, Middle Schoolers celebrated Unity Day, during which they hung tags around campus written with acts of kindness that someone else did for them. “That’s service itself, so we’re instilling and acknowledging that service, even on a daily basis and in small ways,” Elliott said.
While teaching students to look beyond themselves, Elliott also values St. Andrew’s commitment to the inner workings of each child and their social-emotional development. This is a critical component at any age, and especially for Middle Schoolers. Students from Pre-K3 through 12th grade have access to the Student Support Services Department, consisting of professionals in each division that offer a holistic approach to meet the needs of students. Support ranges from learning facilitators and reading specialists to school counselors and chaplains.
This fall, 5th graders were introduced to a class geared toward their social and emotional health as they transition into Middle School and grow as individuals. Saints Skills, taught by Shedrick Rodgers, Middle School counselor, and Cyndi Irons, Middle School art teacher and former Middle School counselor, covers topics and skills that all Middle School students need to know but may not be taught in their core classes. The class provides 5th graders with guidance in navigating new Middle School experiences.
“We saw this as an opportunity to promote social-emotional wellness, support academic readiness, and to develop communication and social skills,” said Irons. “Some of our discussions this year have included internet safety, digital citizenship, friendship and respect, and goal setting. We also use this time to check in with 5th graders to see if there are any problems or stressors at school that we can help them work through.”
Ultimately, the intention behind Saints Skills is to see students exercising these learned skills both during their years at St. Andrew’s and beyond.
“I believe that Saints Skills is a foundation-building block of growing into your destiny,” said Rodgers. “It makes positive connections with peers, conveys the power of communication, and inspires hope as students transition from lower grades. Saints Skills is the primary difference maker for this transition process.”
Additionally through sports, weekly chapel services, and regular advisory group meetings, students have a chance to connect with a faculty member who serves as the student’s advocate and mentor, as well as a trusted point of contact for the student’s parents. Faculty relationships with students and addressing their needs has never been more important than in the midst of a global pandemic. While Elliott credits the entire St. Andrew’s community, he especially reveres the Middle School faculty for going above and beyond in a time of stress and uncertainty.
“I don’t think you’ll find a more qualified Middle School faculty around,” he said. “Even in the midst of their own worries about the pandemic, our faculty continue to find ways to best support kids and teach them with engaging and innovative approaches, to use technology in ways they haven’t previously considered, and they do that all for the sake of the kids. Our kids have responded really well, and in a sense, it’s really brought our community together. Even though it’s challenging, I feel that there’s more of a sense of common purpose. We’re missing out on some things we want to do, but we’re finding ways to move forward. The school’s motto, “We will find a way or we will make one” has never been more evident.”
While the landscape for the rest of the school year remains uncertain, Elliott looks forward to the future of St. Andrew’s Middle School, especially in its development of the entire student. Currently, faculty are developing an 8th grade capstone project, designed to help kids discover their passions and develop leadership skills. Additionally, Elliott is excited about new classroom techniques implemented during COVID-19.
“We’re looking forward to continuing to develop experiential opportunities for kids and to continue to build ways for kids to collaborate,” Elliott said. “The technology we’ve discovered in COVID is going to continue to invigorate our classrooms. We also have three students from outside of Jackson joining our classes virtually this year, which has been good for kids to build those connections with each other and for us to provide a St. Andrew’s education in a broader way. There are a lot of opportunities. It’s hard to see yet where they’re all going to lead, but we are excited about it.”
In the midst of a pandemic or not, St. Andrew’s Middle School aims to change families’ views on what it means to be a Middle Schooler.
“Our students thrive and enjoy Middle School,” Elliott said. “Because of that, they accomplish goals, they overcome challenges they didn’t think were possible to face, and they build authentic confidence. As they get older, they have that confidence in the bank, and their academic skills are ready to go when they reach Upper School. Our community is positive, it’s fun, but it also challenges kids. Additionally, we recognize that Middle School can be a difficult time, and we have a lot of support and partnership with families to make sure that kids are well-supported, that we’re listening and hearing and helping them develop, as well as providing them with the assistance they need and individualizing our work with each student. These are not years to get through, these are years for students to thrive and launch themselves into the future. It’s been my key message that Middle School can be great. It might be hard, but it can be great, and that’s our goal.”