Childhood is a wondrous time of discovery, when children develop their internal values set even as they absorb the complexity of the world around them. It’s when the funny squiggles on a page transform into letters, then into sentences, and ultimately, into a story so compelling you just can’t put it down. It’s when that great truth is verified that worms, indeed, play an important role in the natural word. It’s when we find our first best friends who share our interests completely – or who introduce us to things that are enchantingly unfamiliar. So why is there such pressure today to push through these years quickly – to speed from one mile marker to the next on a highly-curated course? To overload with music lessons AND travel teams AND test tutoring? Perhaps it’s the media, enticing us to get going already, so our five-year-old can prep NOW for the Ivy League, Broadway, or a pro sports career.
This is not, admittedly, an educational philosophy The Branch School shares.
Here, childhood lasts a little longer. In a preschool through eighth grade setting, the point is childhood, not high school, with its social and academic pressures, or prepping for college. Our child-centered, developmentally appropriate environment ensures students are prepared academically and equipped with the emotional maturity to embrace the next phases of their lives. Here’s how one alumnus sums it up:
The Branch School was a really happy place for me. It gave me a strong foundation in friendship, communication, and leadership. A couple of my teachers at The Branch School put a strong emphasis on respecting each other’s differences and working through challenges with classmates. We also did a lot of creative writing projects which gave me the background for writing papers in high school. The creative projects also taught me how to think outside the box, which I applied during four years of high school projects, and especially in writing my essays for college applications.
Our curriculum invites deep exploration and allows time to understand fully. Instead of memorizing a list of answers, our students learn how to think so they can draw sensible conclusions about the world they inhabit. We discuss, debate, muse, and ponder to understand a topic fully, rather than rushing to the finish line of a test or exam. The point is digging in to the things educated people must know, constructing a scaffold of understanding that sticks over time. Additionally, we cultivate peacemaking skills so even the youngest students develop dexterity to handle disagreements with insight and positivity. Solutions to the world’s most significant challenges will emerge from the collaborative work of collegial, optimistic, creative problem-solvers – the type of people we cultivate at TBS.
The Branch School’s small scale means every student is known – something harder to achieve in a larger, K-12 setting. We create opportunities that cross grade levels, like reading buddy pairs, Bear Den picnics, and other events which ensure older students know the littlest bears and call them by name. The “big kids” take this responsibility seriously and become admired role models of the younger ones, forming close and supportive friendships. Often, these friendships span years, even after our eighth graders have graduated and moved to high school.
As children move into adolescence (and all its surprises), it’s important to remember they aren’t “grown” yet: they are still learning who they are and need appropriate, supportive guidance toward healthy decision-making. Some are adept at managing their time and studies while others benefit from gentle, ongoing coaching. The faculty of Branch’s Hightower Middle School organize the curriculum and program to support students at different stages of this journey. Coursework is hands-on and interactive, particularly with our interdisciplinary Sequoia project, as students work together to grapple with large-scale, many-layered challenges. Students have multiple leadership opportunities, options that might not be afforded them in a K-12 setting where such things are reserved for high school. Our middle schoolers can try their hands in student government or lead a club or service initiative, which helps broaden their awareness of the needs around them. Behind-the-scenes types – the planners and strategists every successful operation needs – also find lots of places to share their gifts. Unlike many schools, we believe down time and play are essential for every age child. Daily recess allows tweens time to follow up on a conversation begun in class or in the lab, to get out and move their growing bodies, or to simply relax, giggle, visit, and dream together. Here’s how one graduate remembers time on campus:
I was always a very shy child, but I was able to come out of my shell and be embraced by my classmates and teachers. With such small class sizes, I was able to really bond with my peers, forming lasting relationships, many of whom I am still very close with seven years later. I was able to interact with my teachers one-on-one, to ask questions and to feel encouraged and valued. I always knew the teachers cared about me and wanted us to do well; I saw them as more than just lecturers; they were my mentors too. I always felt (and still do feel!) like a family member of TBS.
An additional advantage to choosing a school that ends at grade eight is that it offers a natural reset for high school. After our cozy environs, some students are eager to take on a large public or private high school, while others realize they love the give-and-take of small classes. A Branch education helps students recognize and weigh the importance of these variables, to use their voices to participate fully in deciding the next best step. Applying out at grade eight – the interviews, the essays, the campus tours – is good practice for what awaits in another few years: the college application process. Students arrive at that moment better equipped with the tools to identify what might be a good fit.
At TBS, we let love lead, helping children develop a love of learning that ensures a sound educational foundation for all that comes next. We pay attention to their innate interests, from the scientific discoveries that especially fascinate them, to the stories they love to write and share, to the dances, songs, and plays they perform, to the compassion they develop for the world around them. Rather than send them down artificial and prescribed paths, we marvel as Branch students create their own paths that lead to singular, fulfilling lives. It’s a joy to be their guides, to watch where their love of learning, their love for others, and their love for themselves leads.
Emily Smith, Head of School, graduate of Smith College and M.A., University of Connecticut School of Education.