Making Better People
At Princeton Day School, students discover a safe, supportive environment where kids are heard, encouraged and understood
by Daniel Sean Kaye

Perhaps the single most important influence in a child’s life—aside from his or her parents—is their teacher.

Every day teachers are the people with whom a child spends the most time. Because of this, a child gains not only knowledge from the teacher but also the ability to learn ways to think about the world, slowly shaping them and helping them grow into the adults they will one day become.

Princeton Day School, an independent, coeducational school educating students from prekindergarten to grade 12, goes to great lengths to nurture this relationship, and its Middle School has at its core the objective to create a supportive, comfortable, safe environment for all children. In essence, students at Princeton Day School’s Middle School thrive because the school and its teachers care. 

What Matters
“Middle school is where many students start a whole new part of their lives,” explains Steve Hancock, assistant head of school for academic leadership and head of Middle School. “It’s important that students know they can be themselves here, that they can try new things in a positive, supportive environment. The Middle School years are not easy; there are new emotions and thoughts; students are trying new things. This is why schools need to create an environment where children feel safe, valued, celebrated and known.”

Additionally, a great middle school allows for students to make mistakes and then learn from those mistakes in a nonthreatening way.

“For them to succeed as adults, they must be allowed to fail and to know that failing is just a part of life,” Hancock says. “No one is perfect. Let them make a few mistakes and show them how to learn from them. It’s OK if they get a bad grade, as long as they’re surrounded by people who love them. It’s not about always being right. It’s about helping them to understand points of view, new ideas.” 
Hancock adds that a healthy school experience must also include the child feeling that his or her contribution to the school is valued.

“When the work a student does is respected and they know their opinion matters, they feel more comfortable being part of school activities,” he says. “Students will try harder and be more involved when they can share their own ideas and thoughts. When this doesn’t happen, when students don’t feel valued, they shut down. This stops them from reaching their full potential. Teachers must show that every student has a voice and that every voice matters.”

Because the middle-school years can be lonely for some children, Hancock wants students to be known by more than just their name. To do this, the Princeton Day School’s Middle School advisory program helps students to get to know each other while also giving them a “go-to” adult that connects with them no matter the issue—peer pressure, health concerns, interests, passions, etc.

“It helps them to not be anonymous,” says Hancock. “When teachers begin to know their students beyond the surface, a relationship will develop. I want all kids to feel like they’re known here.”

Hands-on Curriculum
How a child absorbs and perceives information is crucial for success, so Princeton Day School’s Middle School presents information in revolutionary ways.

“We have an impressive humanities program that begins in fifth grade, where they have new ways that kids can interact with the materials,” says Hancock. He points to the archeology dig project where students learn about cultures. “One class creates a culture—language, history and more—and buries it. Another class unearths and documents it, piecing together this ‘new’ culture. They ask, ‘Why were they the way they were and why did they do what they did the way they did it?’ This lets them explore hands on, and test their own thoughts.”

In addition, the foreign language program offers true immersion in the language. Yet another unique aspect of the school’s science curriculum is that the students do not use textbooks but instead use materials that are hand-created by the science faculty. This approach emphasizes the school’s commitment to hands-on exploration and learning. Also, Princeton Day School’s Middle School math program is a rigorous and in-depth two-year program that begins in the seventh grade with the formal study of algebra, typically taught in high school.

“It’s astounding how much they learn between fifth and eighth grade,” he says. “We also have an incredible arts program. Where many schools are cutting, we have greater opportunities. We’re giving it more time in the day. In fact, participation in band, chorus and orchestra has quadrupled in the last few years.”

Perhaps most important to helping create better thinkers, according to Hancock, is the school’s dedication to give students a firm foundation of how to write.

“There is no better way to convey ideas, to share ways of thinking than writing,” he says. “When you communicate ideas well, you succeed better in life. Having good communication skills also shows them how important it is to be kind, to be a good friend, listener and student.”

Embracing Technology
The 2012-13 school year brings with it another major addition to the education of the Princeton Day School Middle School student: Everyone will receive an iPad.

“We’ve been studying the use of this technology for quite some time. We see it as a major game changer,” says Hancock. “The iPad can help us do so many things we’re trying to accomplish. We’re very involved with sustainability and this cuts down on paper and books since we can have their homework and many of the textbooks digitally. It helps reduce the weight of the book bag so that’s good for the kids’ health, and it helps parents save money on books. It helps us show students how to become more digitally organized, too.

“Today’s students are very comfortable with the technology so it allows for a cross-disciplinary approach and accommodates many learning styles,” he continues. “Teachers will continue hands-on teaching, of course. The iPad will be just another tool for getting the information to the students.”

This project also works with an important tenet the school is pushing: teaching the kids how to be good digital citizens.

“The school has been deeply involved in a concerted effort on character,” Hancock says. “This is about how they represent themselves online. This is something we take very seriously. Kids everywhere have this important technology, but they need to learn how to portray themselves the same way in person as they do online. They have to better understand their own digital footprints.”

The middle-school years are where adulthood begins, and Princeton Day School’s Middle School wants to continue shaping good kids into better, more capable and more fulfilled young adults.

“We want them to experience as many different opportunities as possible,” Hancock says. “At this age, they don’t need to specialize in anything. We want them to feel that they can do many things.”

Princeton Day School
650 Great Road
Princeton, NJ 08540
Phone: 609-924-6700