Supporting students’ emotional and social wellbeing has always been a cornerstone of Notre Dame Prep’s middle level program; that support has been especially critical for students this year, as students grapple with the unpredictable realities of COVID.
“There is no doubt these are ‘unprecedented’ times, and our goal is to help our students navigate school as normally as possible,” says Susan Eisenhart, NDP’s Middle Level director. “That comes not only from focusing on academic instruction and support, but also intentionally addressing social-emotional needs.”
Each week, Jessica Finkelstein, NDP’s middle school counselor, meets with 6th, 7th, and 8th grade students at the all-girls school in Towson. When students are on campus, that meeting takes place in a classroom setting and when students are off-campus, it takes place via Zoom. Guidance classes include developmentally appropriate discussion topics such as adjustment to middle school, healthy relationships, how to destress, body positivity, self-esteem, and strategies for building friendships. But sometimes the session is just about having fun. Especially when it comes to the incoming sixth grade class.
“Starting a new school in a global pandemic via Zoom? That’s not easy,” said Jessica. “We’ve really worked to provide social opportunities for students as much as we’ve tried to provide academic opportunities,” noting that the faculty at NDP is a cohesive family that truly works collaboratively as a unit. Guidance classes at the beginning of the year focused on helping students get to know one another through ice breaker activities so that when they finally met in-person on campus, friendships could hit the ground running. “The girls really just clicked,” said Jessica.
Currently, NDP is back on a hybrid schedule after a temporary return to virtual following Thanksgiving break. The school holds Community Days every Wednesday, and when in hybrid, brings back one grade level for special activities. Students participate in team-building exercises, community service projects, and beloved school traditions like “Tour de Notre Dame,” the annual campus scooter tour. Of course, all activities have been reimagined to comply with COVID protocols and guidelines.
Ensuring students have traditional NDP experiences — like Christmas liturgy and the annual Christmas ugly sweater day — is important for the NDP community. Even if those traditions are altered and take place virtually or in socially-distant settings with masks.
“Even if it feels half-way normal, bringing students to campus and having them participate in social activities provides a sense of normalcy that provides comfort,” said Jessica.
Parents have played a role in ensuring this is a successful year for students as well. They’ve organized socially-distant outdoor get togethers for incoming students to get to know one another, and even started a virtual compliment chain. Girls would mention things that they admired about their classmates and parents would share them with their daughters.
Although things may feel different and there have certainly been challenges, integrating virtual learning into the NDP experience hasn’t been all bad. As Jessica perceptively points out, virtual learning has shown just how resilient kids can be. And giving students flexibility in how they demonstrate mastery of skills has allowed them to be more creative and own their work. For example, virtual art classes inevitably mean that an art teacher isn’t looking over a shoulder and dictating every stroke.
“The girls have more flexibility and the final art product comes out differently,” said Jessica. “It’s really wonderful to see what these kids can do.”
Editor’s Note: This article is part of our School Spotlight Series. In this series, we spotlight our partner schools to give you a glimpse into what learning looks like on their campus. To learn more about Notre Dame Preparatory School, visit their directory listing in our Independent School Directory. Images were provided by the school. Want to become a school partner? Email us.