The middle school years are a time of tremendous growth for students. “Between incoming sixth graders and outgoing eighth graders, there is so much growth in every facet — academically, socially, emotionally and spiritually,” says Marjie Murphy, Director of Curriculum and Instruction with Sacred Heart Schools, a Chicago-based Catholic, independent PK-8 school for students of all faiths. In describing the Portrait of a Graduate, Murphy shares a glimpse of Sacred Heart students’ final few years preparing to launch into secondary education and, eventually, college and career.
“One of the great things is that Sacred Heart is part of an international network of schools, all based on five Goals and Criteria that encompass faith, academics, service, community and growth,” Murphy says. “Everything we do from day one in preschool is in the service of the five Goals and the Criteria that describe them.”
Through the foundational Goals and Criteria, students who graduate from Sacred Heart are ready to continue to their next academic challenge, no matter their choice of high school. “Our middle school students rise up and grow in a way that is scaffolded and supported by teachers and staff and fellow students,” says Murphy.
Passion for learning in a collaborative community
Students at Sacred Heart are encouraged to seek knowledge with enthusiasm and commit themselves to lifelong learning. In part, this passion comes from the understanding that students are surrounded by an educational and social community that cares deeply about their growth and success — and about each student as an individual. Together, students face the challenges of robust academic and personal growth.
Beginning in sixth grade, students join a single-gender advisory group of about 10 peers, led by the same advisor for all three years until graduation. Meeting once or twice a day, students connect with each other and advisors to share study strategies, have lessons in recognizing and naming emotions or good digital citizenship, even plan a project. “It can be simple team building or planning how to raise money for a particular cause,” Murphy explains. “They practice the critical thinking and collaboration skills they use in the classroom in a different environment.”
Middle school students at Sacred Heart have many opportunities to engage and become involved in co-curricular and extracurricular experiences that help them learn what they are capable of achieving. And, they can explore interests and establish themselves without competing with high school students.
“Between sports and fine arts, speech and debate, math competitions and affinity groups, there are so many ways our students can show leadership — in whatever form that looks like,” Murphy says. “They might become lead in the play or join the tech crew. These are all activities that you’d expect to see students do in high school, but we have them here in middle school. It’s so wonderful to see students you wouldn’t necessarily expect to see in a particular group show up and really hit it out of the park. This success really helps them when they get to high school because they can feel more confident about getting involved.”
Another unique aspect of Sacred Heart is the partnership formed between parents and the school to support and raise students who are both known and loved — and as a result, can grow confidently as they strengthen their skills and prepare for their next challenges.
“As a parent, you can be assured that your child will get what they need to flourish throughout their career here. We are partners with parents in this and you can have confidence and faith that your child will do great things while they are here and in their preparation for that next step,” Murphy explains.
Finding the right match
In Chicago’s highly competitive high school environment, it’s reassuring to know that students at Sacred Heart are fully supported to find their best match. Sacred Heart’s high school placement counselor works with parents and students to learn their goals and help them achieve their individual objectives.
“Some students are happy at a small, all-girls high school, while others want to be in a big selective enrollment public school,” Murphy says. “We work on finding the right match for our students. The majority of our students go to private schools and a good number go to selective enrollment schools.”
Through formal surveys and anecdotal information, Sacred Heart faculty members receive overwhelmingly positive feedback about how well graduates do in rigorous high school environments. “Our students do well because we have a robust program — humanities in seventh and eighth grade, a fantastic science program and a differentiated math curriculum,” Murphy says. “All of our eighth grade students complete algebra and some even take geometry concurrently.”
Students are able to achieve success because their education at Sacred Heart is reflective of students’ needs and takes full advantage of specialized resources to support students academically and socially.
Throughout their experiences at Sacred Heart, students rely on the five Goals and Criteria to form a foundation for their academic and social-emotional development — and the result is a portrait of a graduate that is well-rounded and confident academically, but is also a good citizen who is committed to social justice and personal faith.
“It’s easy to get stuck in the academics because it’s what we know and what we tend to focus on. But we wouldn’t have the students we have if it weren’t for the five Goals and Criteria. We took these goals and created the Portrait of a Graduate that really outlines what we want to see in our graduates when they leave us,” Murphy says. “These are still very lofty goals for the nine to 11 years a student is with us, but we want them to continue to grow and develop and learn different ways to solve problems and carry out actions in service of others.”
Learn more about Sacred Heart Schools in Chicago at shschicago.org.