Last spring at the conclusion of their final track and field meet of the year, 50-something middle school track athletes sat in a loose circle waiting to be addressed. The athletes were worn out from the meet and yet were attentive and focused, eager to hear the words that would be spoken.
The speakers were not GDS coaches—not third grade teacher and running guru Anthony Belber, whose skill, passion, and humility have helped to build a dynastic program; not William Miezan, beloved Lower/Middle School physical education teacher who competed as a sprinter for the Ivory Coast in the 1996 Atlanta Olympics; not any of the talented teachers or alumni who support our cross-country and track athletes each fall, winter, and spring.
No, the middle school students were waiting to hear from two of our high school runners, athletes who had come to cheer them on at their last meet. The high school runners were participating in an annual tradition, one in which varsity track athletes share with middle school students the opportunities that await them in the high school, and what will be expected of them in order to thrive at the next level.
This cross-generational outreach in track is not limited to this one day, or to our middle and high school students. In another longstanding tradition, GDS alumni, both college students and young professionals, reach out to current team members the night before major competitions to offer pep talks and good wishes. This outreach helps instill extra confidence and motivation in our runners, and connects them to a legacy and program that is bigger than themselves or their team.
Throughout childhood, it is normal to look to “big kids” as compelling, heroic figures. Early elementary students typically view high school students as quasi-adults, ones who happen to be more fun than their parents. Teen babysitters and camp counselors are often revered as magical, exciting, and all-knowing. As these young people enter their “tweens,” their relationships to older adolescents shift. Middle school-aged students will often look to high school students as voices of wisdom and experience, watching them carefully to learn how to conduct themselves as they grow up.
The thrill that our middle school track athletes experience in hearing from their high school counterparts is not unique. Our middle school dancers are annually inspired by performances of Fata Morgana. High School Quiz Bowl champions run unofficial practices for aspiring middle school trivia buffs. High school scientists engage middle schoolers in a series of scintillating, mind-bending experiments each year when they visit our MacArthur campus for Science Day. Our high school peer leaders meet with their 5th grade mentees for regular leadership training.
When these relationships are cultivated with intention, they can guide early adolescents into connections with powerful mentors, ones who can both deepen areas of passion (music, athletics, science, and more) and provide support in navigating the inevitable social challenges that accompany growing up. The mentorship benefits go both ways: studies show that when older students know they have younger students looking up to them, they tend to adopt the very same characteristics they are attempting to instill in their younger counterparts.
These experiences are powerful and memorable. And, we plan to have them take place far more frequently and with greater intention as we look ahead to our unified campus. At GDS, we believe—and research has shown—that cross-grade-level collaboration not only builds school community, it also supports students’ academic achievement and self-esteem. With all of our divisions in one location, cross-divisional opportunities abound, and we are already in the process of crafting spaces and experiences that will allow us to harness the rich learning that can come from well-designed collaboration.
We envision the formation of our first-ever middle school a cappella group, led by experienced singers from our high school. We imagine a high school baseball star offering tips at middle school batting practice. We look forward to a talented middle school poet sharing her work with an accomplished high school author. We also plan on expanding our cross-divisional mentoring programs, tutoring opportunities, and community events.
For more than 70 years, relationships and community have been at the heart of the GDS experience. Our unified school will support the deepening of relationships and strengthening of community for generations to come.