How did junior high get such a bad reputation? Sure, I was miserable, but that was a long time ago. Today’s junior highs and middle schools resemble the dreary educational way stations of 20 or more years ago about as much as iPads do typewriters. In Santa Barbara, middle school students and their parents can choose from a surfeit of options. The public junior highs, La Colina, Santa Barbara, Goleta Valley, and La Cumbre are now joined by at least seven independent private schools, so there’s no excuse for hating this grade range anymore, because there’s a solution out there for absolutely everyone.
The first myth that needs exploding is that the plethora of private schools somehow reflects negatively on the job the public schools are doing. Visiting the campus of Santa Barbara Junior High School (SBJHS) on a recent Thursday for one of their monthly parent-student luncheons, I was struck by the range of people being served and by the dedication of the school community to a multicultural future. Plenty of Spanish was being spoken, but even more pizza was being consumed. I sat down at one of the picnic tables in the courtyard and was immediately made to feel welcome by the Burfords — Jeannie and Jerrad and their daughter Ava, who is in 7th grade. Ava chose SBJHS because she wanted a big school with lots of options, and her mom is delighted with the honors courses and the responsiveness of the faculty. Ava and her friend Jasmine both started out their school careers at Montecito Union School, and although Jasmine admitted to being nervous about the first day of school, the worst thing that either of them could come up with was that sometimes kids get called “sevvies” by the 8th graders. Jasmine loves the art classes, and Ava has her sights set on an accelerated program in Spanish that will allow her to begin earning college credits while she is still in high school.
Over at La Colina Junior High School, parents participate in the life of the school through a new program created by the science department in partnership with UCSB. On Family Ultimate Science Exploration nights, or FUSE nights as they are known, undergraduate and graduate students in premed, marine science, education, and engineering lead 8th graders and their parents through three full experiments in the course of a single weekday evening. Science teacher Michelle Castillo expressed delight at the turnout for FUSE last Tuesday, recalling that it was “standing room only.” “Each family that attends not only gets to observe an experiment, they also get to conduct one,” Castillo said.
All this excitement at the public junior highs puts the pressure on Santa Barbara’s private middle schools to differentiate themselves both from the public-school experience and from one another. I got a chance to observe how these varied educational institutions stack up at the middle school information fair that was held Tuesday, November 5, at the Montecito Union School. Anacapa School was the first to present, and they emphasized their location as an ideal one for studying government through frequent visits to nearby city hall. But they don’t stop there, because in the science department at Anacapa, the sky’s the limit with their well-known and much-loved weather-balloon project.
The august (85 years old) Crane Country Day School in Montecito emphasizes balance and personal growth as the core of their educational philosophy. Peggy Smith, Upper School head, relishes the fact that Crane graduates consistently return to campus for the school’s annual Country Fair event. Crane student Grace Johnson spoke about her personal growth through community service, and 9th grader Ryan Michaels praised Crane’s surf team.
At Laguna Blanca School, another of the city’s well-established independent schools (80 years old), the middle school is part of a comprehensive K-12 program that’s highly collaborative, interdisciplinary, curriculum-driven, and fun. Ashley Tidey, a 7th- and 9th-grade English teacher, offered a snapshot of one “lovely interdisciplinary learning unit,” based on The Circuit, a film and book about migrant farmers that prepared 7th graders to visit a working farm in Santa Maria. Laguna’s middle school students participate in a house system that divides them into seven tribes, each named after a different one of the Channel Islands. The house system integrates with a four-day-a-week advisory program designed to foster personal development and to deepen the bonds between teachers and students.
Marymount of Santa Barbara student Layla said that she likes the teachers there because they “don’t let you fail, and when you do well, they give you a high five.” Moments later, school head Andrew Wooden got up and gave Layla a high five. Wooden stressed Marymount’s dedication to providing the intellectual preparation students need while maintaining an atmosphere of ethical collaboration.
Karen Regan is the principal at Our Lady of Mount Carmel School (OLMCS) in Montecito, and she’s been there more than 10 years. The school serves pre-K to 8th grade, and you don’t need to be Catholic — 15 percent of the students at OLMCS are not. The whole school population is only 60 students, and their tuition is “the best deal in town” according to Regan.
Chris Rutz, head of the lower school at Providence, A Santa Barbara Christian School, said that the curriculum there focuses on critical thinking and developing positive character traits. Luke, a Providence 7th grader, said that the students there include you, and the teachers will take your calls even after school. The good thing about Providence, he said, is that “someone isn’t telling you what to do; you must decide.”
Santa Barbara Middle School (SBMS) was founded in 1977, and Whitney Ingersoll, director of admissions, has been there since 1980. SBMS began as an alternative school with a four-sided diamond as its organizing metaphor. The diamond’s sides are academics, outdoors, arts and sports, and community. The school was founded on the principle of outdoor education. Students and teachers all go on the wilderness trips, and “mother Nature teaches us,” said Ingersoll.
Although a truly comprehensive, in-depth look at the programs of all these schools was beyond the scope of this survey, extensive conversations with a diverse group of parents and students over the past month served to underscore the significance of choosing the right middle school for you. Every family I talked with expressed the desire to become part of a community that would be warm, welcoming, and tolerant. At the public schools, the trend is toward increased parent involvement in everything from science to lunch, while at the private schools, where parents already play a big part, the most frequently mentioned concepts were experiential learning and group travel. Talking with students revealed another important point, and one that ought to make us all optimistic — they expect middle school to be fun, and, for the young people I spoke with here in Santa Barbara, it is.