Education: Return of middle school aimed at helping girls thrive - Worcester Magazine
by Walter Bird Jr. May 10,2018
Above, Notre Dame Academy Head of School Kathryn Woodson Barr/Elizabeth Brooks photo
Notre Dame Academy in Worcester opened its doors to middle school students last year, adding a seventh-grade class. Those seventh-graders will enter eighth-grade in the fall, marking the first time since the 1960s the school will serve students in grades 7-12.
“At some point in the ’60s we dropped grades seven and eight, and became just a high school,” Head of School Kathryn Woodson Barr said. “It’s nice to go back to our roots.”
There were 16 students in last year’s seventh-grade class. The hope, said Barr, is to have 20 students each in grades seven and eight, and 40 each in grades 9-12, for a total of 200. There are currently 175 students attending Notre Dame, a private, all-girls Catholic School established in 1951.
Re-establishing seventh and eighth grades at Notre Dame is all about creating as many opportunities as possible for young women, said Barr, who joined the school in July last year.
“It’s really a philosophical sort of decision,” she said. “If you look, research shows girls in the seventh- and eighth-grade years often have reduced confidence. They stop raising their hands to answer or ask questions. They get worried about math and science, in particular. They have body image issues.
“In an all-girl environment, those things are minimized. Girls from all-girl schools tend to go into math and science at almost twice the national rate, and have increased confidence.”
Whereas in traditional co-ed school settings girls have to share day-to-day routines with their male counterparts, in an all-girl setting they rely on themselves.
“If you are at an all-girl school,” said Barr, “all the girls do everything. They’re in all the leadership roles. They’re the ones who have to carry the heavy boxes, or build the sets, or sing. If anything’s going to get done, it’s going to be a girl. If anyone’s going to answer a question, or be the first one to introduce themselves, it’s going to be a girl.” In mixed-sex settings, Barr said, that is often not the case.
“If you go to a conference or workshop, even if you have mostly women in a workshop, if you say who wants to introduce him or herself first, it’s often a man,” she said. “That doesn’t happen here.”
Bringing back seventh and eighth grades, Barr said is a way for Notre Dame Academy to stay true to its mission, not just develop a pipeline into high school.
“Certainly,” she conceded, “that was part of it. More than that, how can we make the biggest difference in the lives of girls? Research backs us up. If you really want to make a difference in the lives of girls, put them in an all-girl environment earlier than ninth grade, when they’re already distracted. We want to get them earlier and make a bigger difference.”
While there was some adjustment, Barr said blending seventh grade in with the upper grades went smoothly.
“I think we were a little nervous,” she said. “Are we prepared? Do we know enough about 12- and 13-year-old girls, or will we find out our specialty is really 15-18-year-olds? It’s amazing how well they’ve blended in, and how our teachers have personalized classes to make sure they’re learning not only the content they need, but the skills, and in the ways that are age-appropriate. They fit right in.”
Twelve-year-old Alysanne Buckley was one of the new seventh-graders. The former May Street School student said she felt right at home at Notre Dame Academy.
“The teachers really understand us,” she said recently as she sat with her backpack in front of her school locker. “I also like how you can be able to say what you mean, and in the classes you understand [them]. They aren’t too hard, but they aren’t too easy. The homework isn’t too much, but it’s not too little. It’s the right amount.”
Barr said the school wants to make sure “everything we do is as top-notch as it can be” for all its students, including the newest additions in seventh grade.
To that end, Notre Dame Academy added classes through Virtual High School, and is adding advanced placement, or AP, classes next year.
Although a Catholic school, Notre Dame Academy is open to all students, Barr said. The key is to instill in them a sense of belonging and preparedness, particular at a time in their lives where change may well be the only constant.
“We feel like the faith and the service, the mindfulness, all of that can really help them out,” Barr said. “This is a stressful time for teenagers. Being in a place like Notre Dame Academy gives them confidence, that peace and security they can’t get in other places.