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Mastering Middle School

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Six years after King’s Academy welcomed its first seventh and eighth graders, the school set out to examine whether its revolutionary Middle School was fulfilling its mission.
Mastering Middle School

When the Class of 2021 graduated, it marked a milestone in the history of King’s Academy. Among the graduates were members of the inaugural cohort of King’s Academy Middle Schoolers who had joined when the Middle School opened in 2016.

Starting with 65 students in grades 7 and 8, the Middle School was established with the aim of providing students with a “longer runway for success” at King’s, and “introducing students to the school’s values earlier,” according to Dr. John Austin, who was head of school at King’s at the time.

What is unique about the King’s Middle School is that it follows a standards-driven, mastery-based approach to learning and teaching. It offers narrative feedback to students, focusing student learning not on grades, but on the skills, habits and mindsets needed for success.

So, as the school’s first Middle School students began to graduate, the questions the school administration asked itself were: how is our Middle School doing? Is it achieving the goals set out for it? How competitive are our Middle School students when they get to Upper School in comparison to students coming into ninth grade from other schools with more traditional academic programs, and how could the school measure that?

One way of answering those questions was to conduct a multi-year institutional study focusing on King’s Middle School students’ progress throughout Upper School in comparison to students who entered ninth grade from other schools. Faculty members Mohammad Sarhan and Christopher Hague took on the task of analyzing the metrics.

Mastering Middle School

According to Hague, the research showed that the Middle School’s experiential and competency-based learning is just as effective as more standard, stricter test-based programs at other schools. While there was no notable academic difference, King’s Middle School students did demonstrate an interest in and an aptitude for more advanced English courses compared to other students — a positive reflection of the Middle School’s revolutionary way of teaching English based on award-winning educator Nancie Atwell’s Reading and Writing Workshop approach.

Another area that the research studied was leadership — how were King’s Middle Schoolers represented in Upper School leadership positions? The findings showed that in the Class of 2021, King’s Middle Schoolers were highly engaged in the proctor system, representing 21% of proctors, as well as in the honor and disciplinary committees (HC, DC), representing 55% of members. The research also revealed that when King’s Middle Schoolers ran for the Student Leadership Council (SLC) as freshmen, they won 100% of the time.

“Looking at freshman year, it is particularly clear that King’s Middle Schoolers are seeking out these opportunities and winning these positions,” says Hague.

This was certainly true for Fanar Al-Derzi ’21, who was one of King’s first cohort of eighth graders and by the time he graduated had been a head proctor, a senior SLC representative, and the head organizer of KAMUN (Model United Nations). He had also launched the first — now annual — King’s Fest charity festival.

“I always wanted to become a leader,” admits Al-Derzi, “King’s is a place with never-ending opportunities, it is the place that made me who I am today.”

That sentiment is echoed by Diana Aggad ’26, currently a member of the Middle School Student Leadership Council (MS SLC). “I love being in a leadership role, but back at my old school, even though I was one of the top students in my class, we weren’t given any opportunities. At King’s, every day I feel like we wake up to an email with different opportunities.” 

Aggad is excited to join the Upper School next year. “I’m looking forward to boarding and that family community and making new friends. I also want to try every opportunity I can get in the Upper School. One of my goals is to be a freshman SLC representative.”

That community spirit is clear to see among King’s Middle Schoolers, past and present. Al-Derzi also wanted to make the most of every opportunity, particularly in his senior year. “I was part of so many things, I met and worked with the majority of students and teachers, I bonded with them, I developed interpersonal skills and learned to be efficient and to complete tasks.”

Mastering Middle School

Those skills are coming in handy for Al-Derzi who is studying at the University of Exeter and starting to gain real-world work experience. “I realized how similar it is to the work I did at King’s where I was put in control of situations needing people management, problem solving and communication. These are all leadership skills developed through the opportunities that King’s offers.”

According to Dean of the Middle School Zina Nasser, the Middle School teaches students to become agents of their own learning, which enhances their leadership skills. Every aspect of Middle School life is geared towards self-directed learning, Nasser says, from Harkness discussions during Humanities class, to learning about the school’s Guiding Principles during advisory activities, to class work involving student-led projects and problem-based approaches, and cooperative learning techniques that teach students to work as a group as well as to take the lead.

Additionally, unique Middle School programs such as minimesters, workshops and Engage activities also give students myriad opportunities to step out of their comfort zone, to think more creatively, take intellectual risks, and apply their knowledge in different areas and disciplines.

For Al-Derzi, Middle School is where he believes it all started. “The Middle School has a growth mindset that normalizes setting goals, challenges and developing perseverance,” he says. “Leaders need to be able to deal with failure and rejection. Grading was ‘not there yet’, ‘almost there’ then finally ‘mastery’. The ‘yet’ was everything because it pushed me forward.”

Nasser notes that one of the most important aspects of the Middle School is that it provides a supportive environment conducive to learning.

“Before I moved to the Middle School, I wondered how students would be motivated with no grades,” says Nasser, who was previously head of the Learning Center in the Upper School, “but I saw that they were enjoying learning, they were doing it because they were engaged in what they were doing.”

With the mastery system, she explains, students hold themselves accountable. The Middle School raises them on reflection and feedback, not grades, and they become more comfortable communicating in class, talking to adults, and interacting with their peers. Listening, self-awareness, confidence and being articulate are all ingredients of leadership and Middle Schoolers learn to develop these skills early. When they move to Upper School, says Nasser, they continue to be active community members. “That is part of leadership, taking an active role in their community and leaving it better than they found it.”

Middle School SLC representative Hamza Sboul ’27 agrees with that. “As an SLC member, I feel more responsible and reliable, like I can do a lot of important things and come up with new ideas to help us improve as a community.”

This year, Sboul and the MS SLC took the initiative of producing and performing skits at school assembly to raise awareness of social issues such as bullying, organized team-building activities including a sports day and scavenger hunt and set up a ‘kindness letter box’ for students to send uplifting letters to each other. “We need to keep working to make this school a better place,” he says.

Faculty member Lana Abu Khader, who oversees the MS SLC, believes that the Middle School helps develop leadership and team building skills in students because faculty members take a backseat and let students take ownership.

“We don’t spoon feed, the students do all the work,” says Abu Khader, “we just guide them to help them achieve what they want to achieve — and even if you are not in the SLC, your voice is heard. Because we are a smaller community, Middle School teachers can give each student more attention and care. That’s why they have that extra confidence when they go to Upper School.” 

Mastering Middle School

Another Middle School opportunity that is developing confidence, leadership skills and community spirit among students is the Student Admissions Ambassador (SAA) program. Student ambassadors work with the Office of Admissions and Financial Aid to meet prospective and newly admitted students and their families, to answer their questions during panel discussions, take them on a school tour, host them for a ‘shadow day,’ and generally be a spokesperson for the Middle School experience.

“The program comes from a desire to give Middle School students an opportunity to live out the King’s mission by stepping into a leadership role,” says faculty member and Middle School SAA coordinator George Morganis. “We’re looking for students who are looking to develop those leadership qualities, they don’t have to be the most extroverted kid in the room.” 

One of the Middle School’s ambassadors is Marah Mu’men ’27. “I learned to feel comfortable speaking with all eyes in the room on me,” she says. “I became more patient and have more confidence.”

“Growing up I learned that our community shapes us and makes us the people we are,” she adds. “I wanted to do something that would help me repay my community and that would show other people the kindness that was shown to me when I came to King’s.”

Looking at how far the King’s Middle School has come over the past six years, how its students have flourished over the years, the answer to the question “How is our Middle School doing?” is easily answered: it’s doing great.