Middle school, by its very name, suggests a bridge, of sorts—something that connects elementary school to high school—but at Friends’ Central School in Wynnewood, middle school serves as much more than a mere “stepping stone.”
Alexa Quinn, now in her fifth year as principal of Friends’ Central Middle School, sees the middle school years as a time of profound transition, transformation and selfdiscovery— a time when students begin to learn who they are as learners and as thinkers, and how they relate to the world around them.
“Middle school students are not just big elementary school students or small upper school students; to treat them that way is a disservice,” says Quinn. “Our job is to build on their skills and experiences from elementary school and to very intentionally prepare them for what’s next—meaning high school and beyond—but also to address their specific needs as sixth, seventh and eighth graders.”
Each grade presents its own unique challenges, so Friends’ Central crafts the experience accordingly. Sixth grade focuses on acclimating to a new campus, building confidence and using self-knowledge to “springboard a student’s education,” Quinn says. In sixth grade, students learn to develop executive-functioning skills, such as organization and time management, and they also begin to build “digital portfolios” featuring school projects upon which they can reflect and be proud.
In seventh grade, students become immersed in deeper matters such as identity, personal development and self-advocacy; they gain the tools needed to become independent thinkers and learners, but also learn when to ask for help. It’s also a time for branching out. Early into the school year, for example, seventh graders travel to Echo Hill Outdoor School on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, where they spend a week studying environmental science and building bonds with fellow classmates.
When students advance to eighth grade, they become the leaders of Friends’ Central Middle School, and one goal of the curriculum and programming is to develop their leadership skills. For example, eighth graders participate in self-driven projects, culminating in a “showcase” near the end of the school year. In the showcase, students share their individual academic, artistic and athletic talents in performances for the entire middle school, including students, parents and faculty. In years past, students have performed concerts to raise money for schools with fewer resources, created discussions similar to TED Talks, built a computer from scratch, and written cookbooks with prepared samples of their culinary creations for students to enjoy.
“In middle school, young people are going through quite a transformation,” says Quinn. “It’s a time that has the potential for great challenge but also tremendous opportunity. These students are naturally curious, and they’re beginning to see connections to the outside world. It’s a time of growth and discovery, and we’re connecting them to that, whether it’s through the curriculum, special programs, sports, service or other extracurricular activities. We want to lead them through those developmental moments.”
Coming to Life
Quinn says Friends’ Central Middle School “balances academic success with healthy personal development,” with a challenging interdisciplinary curriculum at its foundation. Quinn, who is also a Friends’ Central alum, credits the school’s teachers for making the curriculum come to life for students.
Relationships are at the heart of everything at Friends' Central," she says. "When I was a student here, I had a transformational English teacher who really made us feel that we were writers, as if we were writing for a real purpose. He had a profound influence on me, and I’m thankful that you still see those kinds of connections being made today, where teachers empower their students, nurture their passions and help them find something new that’s important to them.”
Friends’ Central administrator and teacher Keino Terrell can relate. Terrell, who pulls double duty as middle school assistant principal and language arts teacher, considers it his job to facilitate opportunities for students to develop something he calls “intellectual bravery.”
“The way our teachers teach, we don’t share information and then ask to have it regurgitated back,” he says. “These students are entering a world where there are multiple truths, and they have to be able to navigate in an environment where they get information from many different perspectives. We want them to be able to defend their opinions but also to consider the views of others when they form those opinions.
“What does that process look like in a healthy middle school?” he continues. “That’s the kind of question we constantly ask ourselves.”
In today’s world, middle school students need to feel comfortable talking about difficult but essential topics. As an example, Terrell cites a recent student discussion about patriotism, relating to the controversy surrounding National Football League players “taking a knee” during the singing of the national anthem.
“We have certain kids who say, ‘This is what peaceful protest looks like,’ and they’re sharing the same space as other kids who are very passionate about this type of protest not being appropriate,” he says. “The students want our opinions, but we don’t give it to them, because we don’t want to influence the discussion; our job is to facilitate the conversation. Through these kinds of direct interactions, they’re embracing the fact that they’ll grow and come closer together through disagreement.”
Leading the Way
Students find ample growth opportunities beyond the scope of the well-developed curriculum, including an affinity group program the school started eight years ago. Through these groups, students with common identifiers—racial identity, religious affiliation or family structure, for example— come together to discuss their similarities as well as their differences. As part of the program, members of each educator-led group also share their stories with the rest of the student body.
“Each of these groups provides an opportunity for the whole community to learn from people who identify with a particular affinity,” Terrell says. “We allow them to figure it out together, and that creates a certain comfort level around discussing issues of diversity. They don’t have the fear that a lot of adults have; most adults were never exposed to these kinds of direct discussions as children, but that’s the norm for our students.”
Students also learn and grow through service, an essential part of the middle school experience that’s rooted in the school’s Quaker tradition. Every Wednesday, students spend part of the day participating in various service projects, both on and off campus. These projects might include assisting at local preschools or retirement communities, monitoring the health of the stream in nearby Morris Park or creating content for the middle school newspaper, The Phoenix Inquirer.
“What most excites me about what we’re doing here is this intellectual tug-ofwar we are constantly engaged in—the balance between meeting young people where they are, letting them explore the world around them and showing them they’re going to come out on the other side,” Terrell says. “Our students are growing through self-inquiry, engagement with the community and their ability to navigate the world to determine truth. That’s where the magic happens, and that’s what we strive for every day.”
Friends’ Central School
Middle and Upper School Campus
1101 City Avenue
Lower School Campus
228 Old Gulph Road
Published (and copyrighted) in Suburban Life Magazine, October, 2017.