At the end of my first year at Park, I want to pause to reflect upon my family’s and my move across the country from sunny California to Goddard Avenue. The opportunity to work in a PreKindergarten to Grade 8 school, specifically Park, which has a national reputation for excellence in elementary and middle school education, has lived up to my expectations despite the vicissitudes of New England’s weather.
Before arriving last July, I spent seven years working with high school faculty and their students. Drawing upon that experience and the last ten months here at Park, I have affirmed what the research tells us: the time between four and fourteen is the most transformative and dynamic decade in our children’s lives — intellectually, academically, physically, socially, and emotionally. For this reason, the environment in which they learn and grow matters, and it matters from the beginning to the end of this critical period.
Park isn’t just any PreK-8 school. At Park, we grow-up together — fostering the family/school partnership; we cherish childhood — focusing on the joy of learning and cultivating a sense of curiosity and discovery; and we develop early leaders — capitalizing on the emerging adolescent identity within the safe harbor of Park’s Upper Division before setting off for high school.
Growing-up together — Since our students’ first and most influential teachers are their families, the family/school partnership is the cornerstone of the Park educational philosophy. Our open-door policy invites families to participate in their children’s learning from the first days of PreK to the student-led conferences of the Upper Division. Our culture is dramatically different from my experiences in 9-12 and PreK-12 schools where the benefits of family engagement are usually limited to the youngest grades and unheard of among older students. Research shows that parental involvement through and beyond the elementary years is highly correlated to student success. At Park, parents play a developmentally and intellectually critical role in their child’s life all the way through their family’s journey.
Cherishing childhood — Childhood only happens once. It is a special time of real change, of unfettered joy, of new discoveries, of first challenges, and of endless optimism. Many of us note that childhood is getting shorter and shorter as children face the creep of new influences arriving earlier and earlier. When alumni return to Park, they share stories of how hard they worked and the joy they found in this building, and they always speak of ways they were protected from the challenging social pressures of high school. I have been struck by the deeper meaning of Park’s motto of “simplicity and sincerity;” not only are we preserving and extending childhood for critically important years, but we are also cultivating a habit of intellectual curiosity, resilience, and wonder that will be firmly preserved in each graduate’s future.
Developing early leaders — There are real benefits to being a big fish in a small pond – especially in middle school. While at Marin Academy, I could easily recognize the students who were coming from an independent PreK-8 school; they were confident and at ease within the fast-pace of the high school. At Park, there is a broad array of leadership opportunities for students in Grades 6 through 8. They can play competitive athletics, perform on the stage, compete at Model UN, serve on Student Council, volunteer with younger students, participate in clubs and activities, pursue advocacy through Pangaea or GSA, and engage in community service through the Service Council. Our middle school students also benefit from unique programmatic opportunities like our travel program that takes sixth graders into nature, seventh graders to Washington, D.C., and eighth graders across the globe to China, France, Italy, and Spain. While these sorts of experiences are typically reserved for high school, Park provides unique opportunities for middle schoolers to stretch and challenge themselves in ways for which they might otherwise need to wait.
Elementary and middle school are dynamic times. Interests change, passions emerge, and Park’s 10-year educational journey, beginning with our early childhood learners and culminating on graduation day, offers an intentional arc in which students explore, advance, and acquire new intellectual, moral, and social insights and abilities. I invite you to read the “Tracing the Arc of Literacy From Learning to Read to Poetry Anthologies” article in this edition of the Park Parent, which traces the journey at Park through the singular lens of literacy. You will read how each piece of curriculum leads to the next, and like Park’s PreK-8 experience, it’s not complete until the end.