Although it feels like we’ve just settled into the school routine this year, parents of fifth graders (and, let’s be honest, even fourth graders) are starting to think about the next big milestone: MIDDLE SCHOOL.

It can be overwhelming to think of your “little one” heading into sixth grade and a new academic environment. It can be equally overwhelming to sift through all of the available independent school options and determine which school is the best fit for your child. Where will your child thrive?

Finding the right Middle School environment for your child — and your family — is key to providing the foundation for their social, emotional, and academic success. We sat down with the experts at St. James Academy and came up with five questions to help you figure out where your soon-to-be middle schooler will find their spark.

5 Questions to Ask When Choosing a Middle School for Your Child

How will this program nurture my sixth grader?

Middle School can be tough. (We’ve all been there, right?) It’s important to find a school that will encourage and nurture your anxious sixth grader in a way that will empower them to really spread their wings and fly in eighth grade.

“I wish that parents knew that there’s a natural rhythm and progression of middle school child development. Many times students begin in Sixth grade a little unsure of themselves and appropriately nervous but quickly realize that many needed skills are already in their toolbox and they need to activate them. That little uncertainty and anxiety can be both motivating and mobilizing,” said Dr. Lucie Pentz, child psychologist. “They are able to put into practice their growing executive functioning skills because with increased demands to become more independent, they develop increased mastery.”

Dr. Pentz went on to say that Seventh grade is often referred to as the sandwich year, where students tend to be more sensitive, more likely to get pulled into peer drama, and feel the pressure of the increased academic load. Having your child in an educational environment that gives them the tools to climb over the “hump” will ensure your child has the skills necessary to ‘leave the nest’ at the end of Eighth grade.

“We, as SJA faculty, have been witnessing this progress for decades and can reassure our parents that in the end, it will all work out. Each child is on their own timetable,” said Dr. Pentz.


Who are the people teaching my child?

Middle School is not like Lower School or Elementary School. It has its own identity — one shaped greatly by the administration and the teachers.

Lisa Davis, Middle School Head, wants parents to know that it’s not just anyone teaching their kids.

“I think that it is helpful to know — going in — that the Middle School faculty is really adept at working with students in this age group,” said Davis. “Most importantly, they enjoy the challenges and rewards that come with this age. As students begin to spread their wings a bit, they can hit some bumps in the road. The Middle School team acts as a support system in partnership with the parents to work through the rough spots.”

Middle School parent Laura Ballard was surprised at how challenging the curriculum is in Middle School, but in a rewarding way. She credits smaller class sizes and teacher relationships that help students advocate for themselves and be held accountable for success.

“The teachers are excellent in meeting my kids where they are and pushing them to excel,” said Ballard.

How will this program prepare my child for high school?

We know — it’s hard to think about high school when your child is in fourth or fifth grade, but the truth is it’s only a few years away. You want to find a middle school program for your child that will help them develop confidence as a learner, and then empower them to help take the wheel when it comes to searching for the right high school.

“The high school search process in Eighth Grade is fun!” said Katie Wareheim, Director of Admission & Enrollment Management. “So much growth and development take place throughout the three years of Middle School, and students are vastly different in Eighth Grade than they are in Sixth Grade. Students develop confidence and self-awareness which allow them to be reflective when choosing their next school. They understand who they are as learners and leaders and can articulate what they want from a high school experience. It requires them to make a significant life decision at a really important time in their development. It is rewarding for their parents and teachers to watch the journey through this process in the Eighth Grade year.”

Will my child thrive socially at this school?

Middle School is not just a time for academic growth; most children experience a social growth spurt as well.

“I was surprised by how inclusive the school is and how well my children transitioned to SJA,” said Middle School parent Laura Ballard. “My sons joined [the school] during 5th and 7th grades, which can be a challenging time to make a change. SJA made them feel right at home. All three of my sons joined the student council, volunteered with charitable organizations with whom St. James partners, and made great friends.”

One thing Laura wishes she’d known during the application process? Just how robust the after care program is at St. James when looking at programs for her children. “That extra hour of time at school and playing sports helps kids with socializing,” said Ballard. Not to mention, the extra hour helps working parents with scheduling. When thinking about a Middle School program, consider your child’s interests and the extracurricular opportunities.

Does this school fit our family?

Anytime you consider an independent school option, you are considering a financial investment as well. Local independent schools, especially St. James Academy, will work to make sure that investment is less impactful on your family’s day-to-day finances. Schools offer financial aid and assistance, and the income thresholds are far higher than you might think.

But it’s not just about the financial fit. Your entire family joins a community when you opt for an independent school education for your child. You want to make sure that the school fits your family’s value system.

“One of the fundamental questions is… Are the parents good partners with the school?” said Dr. Pentz. “SJA is a good fit if the parents recognize the value of partnership with the school, recognizing teachers as a source of unique expertise. SJA is a good fit for parents who believe that academics are as important as character development and welcome each opportunity as a valuable lesson and invitation to correction and learning. SJA also means community–being kind, compassionate, and taking the initiative to contribute to the good of all.”

To learn more about the Middle School Program at St. James Academy, visit their website at


Editor’s Note: This article is sponsored by St. James Academy.