Students at Holy Child Middle School have the option of starting a little earlier than most of their counterparts in what the all-girl Catholic school calls the fifth grade advantage.
By Janice Llanes Fabry
Students at Holy Child Middle School have the option of starting a little earlier than most of their counterparts in what the all-girl Catholic school calls the fifth grade advantage. Head of Middle School Colleen Pettus believes strongly in the grades 5-8 framework.
“Of course, every family has to make that decision, but often in a K-5 model, fifth graders are in a position where they’re just waiting to get into middle school,” she remarked.
Taking this state of limbo out of the equation, the Middle School Head explained, “Fifth grade here is the beginning. It gives us the opportunity to take advantage of this different mindset, while it gives each girl the opportunity to shine.”
They benefit from the fact that they’re surrounded by older girls who are models of leadership and confidence. With only 12 students enrolled in the fifth grade in a deliberate attempt to keep it small, the Middle School is able to provide individual attention, as well as academic, social, and emotional support.
A consult period, for instance, gives the girls the opportunity to meet with their teachers individually for extra clarification before tests. According to Pettus, it also fosters a comfort level and develops their ability to have meaningful conversations with adults at an early age.
Before arriving at Holy Child three years ago, Pettus acquired many years of experience in academia. After teaching high school English in New York City public schools, she worked at Teachers College at Columbia University for ten years, first as an adjunct instructor and then as a supervisor of student teachers.
In her first foray into administration, she took on the role of principal at Saints John and Paul Elementary School in Larchmont. “I truly took a leap of faith and was so happy I did,” she recalled. “My years of work as a teacher and mentor laid the groundwork for the leadership skills I rely on every day as an administrator.”
During her tenure at Holy Child thus far, she has added a technology sequence to the fifth grade curriculum within a Build It course that introduces the students to the fundamentals of engineering and design. “Girls can tap talents and abilities they never knew they had,” said Pettus. “Build It provides the opportunity for them to learn about themselves as learners.”
Teams of girls collaborate to build circuits and marble runs using different computer programs. In sixth and seventh grade, they advance to building robots. By the time they’re in eighth grade, they’re designing their own computer games.
There is also a Service Learning class, which has gained traction this year. While eighth graders take the helm on the Midnight Run program, which provides the homeless with food and clothing, the entire school gets involved.
“Community service here is not extracurricular and it is deepened by curriculum. Service Learning encourages empathy and learning about someone else’s journey,” explained the Middle School Head.
As an independent school, Holy Child is not bound by Common Core. Pettus noted, “We never take our independence for granted and we’re in an environment where teachers can bring things to the curriculum all year long. There’s always room to change and to grow.”
Her role as administrator notwithstanding, Pettus remains in close contact with all 87 students in the Middle School. Not only does she get to know each one in their various leadership roles and as an advisor, but her office is located among the girls’ lockers and she wouldn’t have it any other way.
“We create a place where all students are encouraged to embrace who they are and we challenge every girl to become the best version of herself,” she said.