At The Watershed School, we have a high emphasis on academic excellence in all grade levels. This, along with the sense of community developed over elementary school years and the children’s close relationship with natural surroundings, will support our middle school aged place-based philosophy.
Research has shown that in schools where real-world academic assignments require higher order thinking skills, student achievement is higher. The following principals of a developmentally appropriate middle school aged curriculum, developed by the National Middle School Association (2003, pp.20-24), closely parallel the philosophy of The Watershed School.
- Relevant to the everyday lives of adolescents and what they wonder about themselves, the world or a content area. Their interest should generate questions upon which study will be based, while still exposing them to new concepts and ideas as their interests expand.
- Challenging yet achievable. Teachers should assist students to examine values, assumptions, and alternate viewpoints, addressing why and how things happen, as they become thinkers with their own ideas.
- Integrative without arbitrary subject boundaries since real life issues are naturally transdisciplinary. Content subjects should infuse reading and writing as they apply.
- Exploratory, providing broad experiences and exposure affording the opportunity to discover their interests and talents and to become more well rounded individuals.
Beginning Fall 2010, the Watershed School's seventh and eighth grades will operate somewhat differently than the elementary grades. The Watershed School strongly believes that in elementary school our students should have the same teacher all-day-long for two years (looping model). In 7th and 8th students will rotate between two teachers. There are two reasons for this. For one, we can have highly qualified content area teachers who focus on specific areas of curriculum. The second advantage is that it will help students prepare for the multiple teachers they’ll encounter in high school. At any given time, we will have slightly fewer than fifty students in seventh and eighth grades. By using creative scheduling our two middle school teachers will provide a stimulating mix of language arts, social sciences, sciences, and beginning and advanced math classes. For advanced students, we will attempt to offer independent study such as math beyond pre-algebra. For our learning disabled students, resource support will be integrated throughout the content areas.
Another unique feature of The Watershed School, when compared with larger stand alone middle schools, will be the opportunity to increase student involvement in planning the educational programs. In keeping with our place-based philosophy and project-based emphasis, students and teachers can plan activities around math and science that the students find interesting and relevant. In the social sciences, the students work with teacher guidance to plan service-learning projects that bring meaning to their education.
As the oldest students in a K-8 school, seventh and eighth graders will also have the opportunity to serve as mentors and leaders within the school. Taking on this role helps build students’ self-esteem during this critical adolescent period. Middle school aged students want to feel that what they do matters and that they have the ability to make a difference. When students this age work with younger students they begin to see themselves as role models and strive to contribute positively to the education of the younger students.
As in all grade levels of The Watershed School, the involvement of parents and the relatively small size of the school gives it much of its character. Three things parents traditionally feel are priorities: school-wide intimacy, a solid educational program, and a safe and positive learning environment, all can be achieved through a small school running on the K-8 model. If children are known by every teacher in the building, and most children have a relationship of nine years' duration with staff, you end up with an exceptional educational focus and intensity. Research overwhelmingly suggests that it is essential for middle grade students to have an adult in the building with whom they have a supportive relationship. With our seventh and eighth grade model of two teachers, supported by other teachers who have know these students for years, our children will not fall through the cracks. The National Middle School Association (2003) recommends home rooms as an essential component of middle schools. The Watershed School can exceed the intimacy of the home room, as our small student numbers and small staff will provide a family-like atmosphere.
In addition, 7th and 8th graders in K through 8 schools are less likely to fall victim to negative peer pressure than they are in large stand-alone middle schools and junior highs. Less social pressure, an emotionally safer environment, and more opportunities for autonomy and leadership are prevalent in a small school model. With the lower social pressure, staff can look for higher expectations because students already know and are comfortable with this group of peers, and teachers already know to what standards students are capable of rising.